BLOG: What is the value of an English degree?


Last week Sheffield Hallam announced the end of its English Literature degree as a standalone course, from 2023/24. They claim it is due to demand. Many say it is to do with funding and a political devaluing of arts and humanities degrees.

At always possible, in all of our work to support the future of work, skills and employment, we fervently advocate for a mixed set of skills and knowledge through education and life-long learning. And we will always defend the protection of every child, young person and adult’s creative, analytical and scientific development in a changing world that needs a wide range of skills in balance. Deleting long-established degrees is short-sighted.

Earlier this year, our CEO Richard Freeman asked Andy Burnham – former Education Secretary and current Mayor of Greater Manchester – about the value of his English degree.

Is it relevant that Andy Burnham obtained an English Literature degree versus a Politics, Philosophy & Economics (PPE) degree like most other minister level politicians?

Andy Burnham on English:

I don’t think there are many people actually, who have English degrees at this level of politics. A couple. I’m one of them.

I remember in the late 80s, when I was applying to university, I said to my mum and dad (who didn’t go to university) that I was thinking of applying to do English. And I remember my dad saying, ‘but what are you going to do with that?’ And that was a common perspective.

I enjoy it. I think I’m quite good at it. And I remember saying that to my dad, because he did eventually get into it with me and was obviously encouraging me.

And my English teacher gave me a poem called ‘V’ by Tony Harrison. It was on Channel Four as a film in the late 1980s. And it’s all about a working class, upbringing. About that generation in the north who were trying to reconcile what they were trying to do and their ambitions with what their parents did.

And you know, it really spoke to me.

But I remember saying to my Dad, ‘look at this, the the epilogue on ‘V’ is a quote from none other than Arthur Scargill!’

‘My father read the dictionary every day, he says your life depends upon your power to master words.’

And that stuck with me because I used that as my defense at the time as to why I was doing English. But as I’ve gone on in life, it’s become more and more and more true to me. The creativity that comes with language, and understanding language, and the emotion behind language, has definitely served me much better than any qualification in PPE or sociology or anything else would have.

I was so lucky to be asked to speak at Tony Harrison’s 80th birthday a couple of years ago, and it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been asked to do – because of the impact he had on my life. And I remember quoting one of his poems, in which he’s sitting in front of a fire with his dad (an ex miner). And they’re talking about what to write on his mum’s headstone, after she just died.

And honestly, I just recommend it to anybody. I don’t think there’s a more powerful poem in the English language for me. Tony Harrison is talking about his dad’s words:

Misspelled mawkish, stylistically appalling.

But I can’t squeeze any more love into her stone.

It’s such a powerful poem.

And that kind of thing has been a bit of a feature of my life; that sense of reconciling the world you’ve come from the world that you’ve gone into. Be it Cambridge, or Parliament, or what I do now.

But I always think that by bridging those two worlds, that’s where I think some of what’s kept me steady all the way through; that understanding of language at every level. And how language either separates people or connects people back together.

I’ve really drawn on that that experience as an English student in my whole political career in a way that I didn’t think I would. I wasn’t expecting a knowledge of Tony Harrison or Chaucer to be much use on the doorstep in Greater Manchester. But would you know, it is actually.

Listen to the full interview

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