Is the future bleak for academia?


For a while now, I’ve been fairly convinced that I want to continue my study beyond my undergraduate degree. Postgraduate study in English Literature appeals to me because, cliché as it sounds, it would allow me to develop my academic interests, specialising in a way my undergraduate degree won’t allow. Given that these are pretty stagnant economic times, I also figure that I’m in no hurry to get out into the real world; I’d be far happier staying within the university bubble.

However, I’m forced to consider whether or not it’s what I really want to do. More and more I’m reminded that I’m doing an arts degree. I find myself increasingly forced to defend my degree to others, which is symptomatic of a growing institutionalised stigma against the arts as the government protects the sciences from funding cuts.

To an extent, this is understandable. The sciences are the subjects which are going to have the biggest impact on the world, as no amount of literary criticism is going to cure cancer or save the rainforests. This is the argument used against the arts: it’s all about the “impact”. Study and research is under more pressure than ever to prove its worth outside of academic circles, and this is where many people say that a degree like mine falls down.

This argument, however, completely misses the point in my eyes. Research in English Literature is inherently limited in what it can do for society, but at the same time it isn’t motivated by this desire in the same way that work in, say, medicine, is. Academics in my subject area, I would argue, are motivated by a personal desire and curiosity.

Admittedly, this does smack a bit of selfishness, and perhaps these areas are justifiably first in line when cuts are needed to save money. However, academia is in trouble if people aren’t encouraged to study something out of sheer, genuine, intellectual interest.

All of this causes a problem for undergraduates considering furthering their academic career, because it doesn’t paint the best picture of postgraduate life in the arts. However, this institutional bias against my subject isn’t the main factor in my anxiety. Rather, my reservations are in fact rooted in the very place I’d hope to find reassurance: my department.

Postgraduates we spoke to in a recent investigation painted a grim picture of my department. I’m not saying I hero-worship any of my lecturers, but it was off-putting to hear them described as selfish and insular, and the department as a whole described as regressive. This was a single, isolated and probably exaggerated opinion, but it does seem to be part of a wider issue. I wouldn’t say that this opinion is necessarily held throughout the department, or other arts departments, or that it is not encountered at all in the sciences. However, there have been some worrying instances of late.

Take the recent lecturers’ strike, for example. This led one of my tutors to comment in a seminar that the department is not what it was when he started out and that it has become increasingly managerial and administrative. Part of me thought this just sounded like a man who had not had his lunch yet complaining that he had an extra seminar to teach, and I almost found myself saying that he’d probably enjoy it more if he spent his time engaging his class in discussion rather than complaining about University management. However, this was still not exactly the sort of thing you want to hear from your department.

On top of this, the Head of the English Department is leaving Lancaster at the end of this term, and has spoken out about the condition of academia in the UK, and about the difficult position postgraduates find themselves in. When you hear such a senior figure calling the academic system a joke it feels a bit like a rats-from-a-sinking-ship situation, and it’s going to make you think twice about postgraduate study.

In any other career area, you expect these sorts of people to tell you how it’s hard work to get where you want to be, but that it’s totally worth it when you do. I just don’t see that in my department, so maybe it’s time to burst out of the university bubble.

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