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English: why the discipline may not be 'too big to fail'

Robert Eaglestone and Simon Kövesi ponder the problems that could sink the subject

Feature illustration (31 October 2013)

Proposed GCSE reforms could have a catastrophic knock-on effect on the numbers of students doing English at A level, and for higher education entry

English, the biggest discipline in the arts and humanities, is beset by some of the roughest storms in its history – and, unlike some other subjects, it is almost totally unprepared. The ship is holed, the sails are ripped and yet the sailors – usually known for their loud dispute, critique and dialogue – are inert and silent.

English has always been intellectually dis-united. It has no common methodology, no shared aims. While from the outside people assume they know what English is (reading, thinking and writing about literature), those of us within the subject spend ages agonising about what and who we are. We’ve had theory wars and culture wars; we’ve fought over the canon, gender, race, genre, language, history and class; we’ve had Oedipal spats with drama academics (they left, mostly) and creative writers (they’re staying, mostly). And the truth is, literary critics like intellectual crises. We live for them, in fact.

But the looming disasters and blowing gales are not intellectual ones. They are of the less flashy, more workaday variety, and extend way beyond the usual academic concerns. Before we list them, let’s see why English is so woefully under-prepared.

The subject’s intellectual disagreements are compounded by ingrained disciplinary sub-divisions: Victorianists, Shakespeareans, medievalists, Modernists and so on have their own courses, conferences and journals. They rarely talk to each other and can sometimes be hostile (as in: “How come Shakespeareans get all the grants?”). There is not even much shared teaching in most institutions. To the amazement of publishers, other academics and new postgraduates, there is no central online forum or body to act as a “clearing house” for conference calls, new books, announcements and papers.

More crucially, there is a huge, rarely crossed divide between English at secondary school level and English in higher education. While physics teachers in the schools sector are served by the Institute of Physics and history teachers by the Historical Association, which regard them as being on a continuum with university colleagues and lobby for their disciplines as a whole, many teachers of English in secondary schools feel cut off from academic English. Perhaps this is the core of the problem: there is no unified national voice for English. It’s not so much that there are no such disciplinary bodies but that there are instead too many, with a bewildering array of acronyms, complex histories and half-forgotten animosities.

There is the English Association, the National Association for the Teaching of English, the Council for College and University English (CCUE), the United Kingdom Literacy Association, the National Association of Advisers in English and the National Association of Writers in Education. Some serve slightly different constituencies but, for anyone within the subject, there is a confusing overlap of role and remit. A small unified body, the Common English Forum, brings some of them together, meets in an ad hoc way and offers some potentially useful links, but that’s it. In good times, having so many bodies and such a divided discipline might not be a problem: it might, instead, reflect a thriving array of variegated interests and a dynamic, capacious subject. But we are not in good times, for education or for English. Between them, these bodies are falling short of the support and attention the subject sorely needs, in a wide variety of areas.

The first is GCSE reform. The reforms currently proposed will abolish the current three qualifications (language, literature and a joint qualification) and create a new compulsory GCSE in English language and an optional GCSE in English literature. The new English language GCSE will be very different: focusing on communication in many forms, it will strip out most of the literature and look very like “composition” in the American system. The proposed reforms will also create a new heavier and more challenging GCSE in English literature. However, and this is the central issue, this will not be part of the reformed English Baccalaureate (the performance measure of schools based on the percentage of students who obtain a C or better in a series of core subjects: English language, mathematics, two sciences, a foreign language and history or geography). Moreover, it is not proposed to be among the “high-value” subjects – in addition to the compulsory English and maths – that will count towards demanding new “floor standards” in the scoring on which school league tables are based. The Department for Education has tried to incentivise schools to take literature by allowing the English language scores of those who take it to be given a double weighting, but many schools, quite justifiably aiming to play the system, may still react by dropping English literature and concentrating on easier subjects. This would have a catastrophic knock-on effect for the numbers of students doing English at A level, and so for higher education entry. This is in addition to the 18 per cent drop in take-up of GCSE English literature between the 2005-06 and 2011-12 academic years, according to official figures. We know that the watershed moment for the current perilous state of modern languages came in 2004, when languages became optional at GCSE. This moment is now being repeated for English literature.

Feature illustration (31 October 2013)

Many problems in teaching were addressed by the much-loved English Subject Centre. Sadly, it closed in 2011, among the first victims of budget cuts

A-level English isn’t thriving either. While there has been a 2.4 per cent increase in students studying the subject since 2008, there has been a 5 per cent increase in entries to all subjects – so English is becoming slowly less popular. There is an impending round of A-level reforms, too, which look as if they will limit coursework for English and reduce the overall number of texts studied. The Department for Education also seems to be rushing these reforms and is sometimes not engaging constructively with the exam boards, teachers and higher education experts.

So if the GCSE and other reforms are going to devastate our intake in a few years’ time, how is recruitment to university English doing now? Rising from 51,638 in 2003, there were 60,992 applications to English degree programmes in 2010, according to Ucas figures. But, since then, numbers have fallen to 52,842 in 2012. The CCUE has declared that the tripling of tuition fees means that “English, as a subject, is undoubtedly going to expand”. This is typical of an expansionist assumption within academic English: we are too big to fail; we are too big to worry; we are a “core” subject and our value does not need extolling as it is self-evident. These presumptions look woefully out of date in an age in which the costs of complacency are high.

Worse still, the subject – so used to times of plenty – is now eating itself. It is in our discipline, perhaps, that the developing competition between universities in recruitment, removing the numbers cap for students with ABB or better at A level, is being felt most keenly. English students look appealing to university accountants because, not needing labs or specialised workspaces, they are less expensive to teach and are still typically charged £9,000. As a result, many English students have been sucked up by higher-ranking universities. Some English programmes have increased massively. Ucas figures indicate that one major Russell Group university’s accepted applications in English went up from 70 students in 2011 to 177 in 2012: a rise of 153 per cent. Another increased its acceptances by 39 per cent and a third has expanded acceptance numbers by 181 per cent since 2010. In 2012, the Russell Group’s share of the UK’s total accepted undergraduate applications in English rose from 34 to 39 per cent.

Such rises are having a detrimental effect on recruitment in departments perceived to be lower down the pecking order. Of course, if English academics at these growing departments went to their senior managers and expressed concern that the expansion of their student numbers could lead to departmental closures at lower-ranking universities, they would be laughed out of the office. But the numbers confirm that English has greedily embraced the new emphasis on aggressive competition. This change, and its longer-term consequences, are not being discussed in the discipline at all – in a subject that once prized itself on its reflexivity, ethics and political nous.

Teaching quality is not all rosy either. Low contact hours at leading departments have led to questions in the House of Commons and regularly draw comments in the press. How is English, as a discipline, responding to the “student as consumer” ethos? How is it supporting new staff? The Higher Education Academy runs some “new to teaching” courses, but are these being used widely in the discipline? Many of the problems in teaching were focused on by the much-loved English Subject Centre. Sadly, it closed in 2011; along with the rest of the Higher Education Academy’s subject centres, it was among the first direct victims of recent cuts to the budget of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Feature illustration (31 October 2013)

English research is also in trouble. Open access is a huge, discipline-changing challenge that hasn’t been faced sufficiently. This is especially frustrating because the problems posed by open access for the humanities should be answered first and foremost by and through disciplines. The current core problem is with journals, the intellectual lifeblood of the discipline. In English, academic authors face fees of upwards of £1,000 for each article they publish in open access journals. The Arts and Humanities Research Council will provide some money for this but not nearly enough to go around. This means that decisions over what gets published will come not from academics but from the administrators in charge of slender resources. Postgraduate students will, for the most part, be frozen out, as will more exploratory work. The funders mandating open access, including Hefce, say they will be content if authors post their published papers in a university open access repository. But while this gets the work published, it fails to address adequately issues of peer review and prestige, and access for postgraduate students and those no longer affiliated to an institution. It also threatens the creation of subject communities and debate.

And what is more, this incredibly fluid situation won’t last long. When publishers see their revenue from journals declining, they will simply abandon them – indeed, some are already doing so – which will leave nowhere for research in English to be published. A few university presses might be persuaded to keep a handful of high-prestige journals going. But the way things used to be with journals – and the key role they used to play in disseminating research, conferring academic prestige and communicating appointments – is over.

However, as literary theorists rather clumsily say, every emergency is also a time of emergence. As many scholars have observed, given the amount of free work we do for journals, we could move to an open and self-organised publishing system, and take journals – as well as innovative new forms of publishing – back “in house” for a considerably reduced cost. But while the funding for this may have to come through institutions, the intellectual work, and changes to how we think about prestige and linked issues, will have to be organised in and through disciplines.

Here we run up against the problems mentioned above with our disciplinary bodies. It is clear that the main academic-serving body, the CCUE, is in trouble. At a recent conference on The Art of English at Queen Mary, University of London, the audience was asked who had heard of it. Five people out of about 80 put up their hands. Worse, at an HEA briefing day for heads of English departments in April, it emerged that only about half of the 25 or so people there knew about the CCUE. According to the minutes of its most recent annual general meeting, only 44 of the UK’s 103 English departments are affiliated with it.

The CCUE has assisted in making some responses to government consultations, often with the English Association, but this isn’t enough. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect it to do more than help us to batten down our hatches: as a volunteer organisation, it simply does not have the financial clout or the committed staffing of the closed English Subject Centre. However, if it is to play the role it should, the CCUE needs to proactively engage in shaping government policy, raising the profile of English in the media, working with groups including the British Council, the BBC and the writers’ charity English PEN, and liaising with trade and academic publishers to ease the transition to open access. Indeed, all the organisations ought to work together even more closely and actively to forge a forceful, coherent national voice for our discipline. If we don’t start to respond vigorously to the gathering storm, the English ship will surely sink.

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