On a recent trip back to my parents’ house my mother presented me with a load of papers. They were in a box that hadn’t been opened in 30 or so years. It wasn’t really a sentimental presentation. It was part of a clearout, and if I didn’t take it the binmen would.
It was a collection of things I’d amassed through my teenage years and as I was leaving school. There were yearbooks, a newspaper that some friends and I had made (we were VERY angry at Brian Mawhinney, then minister in the Northern Ireland Office) and a lot of poetry. It is quite something to read your angsty teenage poetry, raging at a lot of things and obviously having read too much Seamus Heaney. For the most part it should not have been kept at all, never mind for over 30 years.
There were also essays detailing the books I was reading, peppered with what I clearly thought were incredible insights. Such distance of time makes you feel like you’re greeting a stranger, a slightly earnest and pretentious one you’re not too sure about at first. Thomas Hardy got a kicking, Sam Selvon was loved, as were Arthur Miller and Samuel Beckett. In a home with few books, reading clearly meant a great deal. I suddenly remembered this. The books came from libraries or were passed on by teachers. A new world seemed possible.
From just £3 per week
And now, here we are, in a world where the possible is closing. Sheffield Hallam University is suspending its English Literature course from next year. They claim there is a lack of demand, that students are becoming unwilling to take courses that don’t offer a route to highly paid jobs.
I don’t blame Sheffield Hallam University for making their choice. But there is something wrong when that decision has to be made. And they are not going to be the only university making that assessment.
It does feel like third-level education is at a crossroads. It was heading there before Covid, and now that has accelerated. Colleges that aren’t blue chip, or Russell Group, are having to make difficult financial decisions. I haven’t seen any Oxbridge college announce a course squeeze yet. And I’m still not totally clear what vocational skills the vaunted PPE degree carries.