Laura Blumenthal is a Wokingham Borough councillor.
Let’s get real. What 17-year-old loves Medieval literature? Apparently, the era’s not a huge pull to the University of Leicester’s English degree. What a shocker.
The Midlands institution has found itself in hot water as news of its plans to axe Chaucer, English Language and Medieval literature has come to light. This has contributed to nearly 150 jobs being at risk of redundancy. Blaming lack of interest in these areas is a poor excuse. They form a core part of English degrees across the country, and other universities are sticking up for the department.
Academics at the University of Bristol have sent a punchy letter calling it ‘cultural vandalism’ while dons at Oxford University highlight how widespread the outcry is, citing ‘international dismay’ at Leicester’s decision.
So why is Leicester alone in this? Teenagers go to university to learn. They don’t tend to know much about medieval lit – certainly not how it forms the bedrock of the literary canon we have today. It’s up to universities to open their eyes to this and authors they know nothing about. It’s called education. Universities in the UK should be about high standards, not the highest return on investment. It was Chaucer who wrote: ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ University is not the place to play it safe.
When I did the English degree at Leicester, a girl from a comprehensive school who wanted my mind fed with the literary greats, medieval literature didn’t interest me at all. This was exactly why I found it the most enriching. Realising that authors centuries ago had more in common with teenage me than I thought blew my mind. The social inequalities, humour and calls for justice of today can be found freshly portrayed in Chaucer in the fourteenth century. It really is universal and timeless and we forget this at our peril.
The proposed changes aren’t a fair case of marketplace competition driving up standards to attract more punters. Judging by the strength of an open letter to the University, signed by outraged graduates of the degree, I can personally attest that it is a first-rate course with premier teaching. External examiners have also resigned in protest, with Professor Catherine Clarke raising conflicting evidence to the university’s claim of students taking less of an interest in Medieval modules.
There is no fault with the course, but an issue with the University’s marketing department in not promoting it well enough. To be fair, they do have a tough job as the establishment has tumbled in the rankings over the years. That should be the focus, rather than giving students a shoddier education to save money. Leicester’s University and College trade union has done a good job in unearthing investments and financial statements which raise questions about motives behind recent decisions. Universities need to adapt – but it shouldn’t be taken out on long-serving staff who are leading experts in their field. Once they’re gone, they won’t be coming back and its students who will lose out permanently.
There has been distracting talk about the changes being due to ‘decolonising the curriculum’. Poppycock. Diverse modern authors are already studied on the Leicester English degree and was over a decade ago when I was there. Any ask for more voices doesn’t call for the wiping away of a whole swathe of authors who wrote the finest literature in the English language. As Conservatives we can’t stand the lowering of standards and the University of Leicester is doing just that at the expense of students’ education. The heart of this issue isn’t culture wars or dropping student numbers – it’s about giving a poorer education because they feel they can get away with it. It sets a dangerous precedent and one we may see more of as universities’ purses become more squeezed.