Demand for English degrees has dropped: here’s what we need to do to reverse that

In recent years, the number of students deciding to do an English literature degree has decreased drastically, with a drop of almost a third within less than a decade. But why is this happening? And what can we do about it?

There are several factors that have led to this dramatic decline. As a society, we are spending more of our free time on Netflix and social media than reading. The domination of TV in our lives means that we feel compelled to catch up with the shows that everyone else is watching, often at the expense of reading time. Although TV shows have stories to tell that may inspire an English student, reading is at the heart of English literature, so a lack of reading experience would deter someone from studying English. 

English encourages understanding of other people and cultures, a skill that is desperately needed in a world of divisions and diversity

Another factor that is particularly prevalent is the government’s persistent promotion of STEM (Science, Technology, Maths and Engineering) subjects. Although this promotion is not bad per se, it has come at a cost to AHSS (Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) subjects. The economy needs both STEM and AHSS subjects in order to thrive – in fact, contrary to what you might believe, research from the British Academy shows that students who study AHSS are just as employable as those who study STEM. AHSS students also have the added advantage of flexibility, as their skills suit many areas of employment.

But what about English literature specifically? Some see it as a degree for dreamers, that leads to loads of student debt and a dead-end job in a coffee shop. Others would argue that it has a value beyond just being the study of the expression of beauty in words. English encourages understanding of other people and cultures, a skill that is desperately needed in a world of divisions and diversity. Reading a book about a character with different life experiences to you can help you to imagine what the lives of others are like. Understanding this gives you the knowledge to help real people who are similar to the character in real life. Moreover, literature is filled with insights into other disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, and theology. Another major asset is the ability to understand how language is used to influence people, which is increasingly important in an age of disinformation.

Through positive press and government initiatives, we could see a rise in students studying English

So, what can we do to encourage eager English pupils to carry on their English studies to degree level? First of all, the disparaging needs to stop. Seeing subjects like Maths as better than English, based on average salary, is an inaccurate judgment – it assumes that earnings are the main way to ascertain the worth of a degree. There are other things to consider, such as the learning of skills and enjoyment of the subject. Both Maths and English provide skills (and sometimes enjoyment) to those who study them. It is up to the student to decide which degree they will get the most out of. Besides, there is the fact that average salary is just that – an average. There will be individual English students who end up earning more than Maths students and vice versa.

Secondly, there needs to be career support for English students. As is the case with every subject, it is important that they know what sectors their skillsets are suited to – this includes obvious choices like journalism and the creative industries, but also sectors like marketing and PR. Being aware of the wide array of job options makes a degree appealing – the prospect of getting a good job is the primary reason for doing a degree. Finally, the government needs to highlight the importance of all subjects and not just STEM subjects. Through positive press and government initiatives, we could see a rise in students studying English.

It would be great to see a world where every subject is valued. Graduates with a variety of degree subjects make the workplace a more skilled and more interesting place, which is beneficial not just for individuals, but the economy as a whole, too.

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