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  • A Note on the U.K. Context
  • Ben Knights (bio)

This note is designed to provide the reader outside the United Kingdom with a narrative context for the articles and other pieces in this number of Pedagogy. As indicated in the introduction, the scope of the English Subject Centre extends across the group of English disciplines. Among these, literature tends to occupy a dominant place, since English language study has tended to move out to specialist departments, though medieval languages and studies tend to be housed within literature. Late in the day as compared with the United States, over the past dozen years creative writing has increasingly become a program element, in a few cases as a solo degree subject. In this connection, we should note that there is no U.K. tradition of composition studies (though much attention is now devoted to academic literacy and study skills programs). English is still the fifth most popular area in terms of university applications, despite massive pressures favoring more apparently vocational subjects. Like all subjects, English has increasingly been required to explain itself to potential students and employers in terms of transferable skills and the employability of graduates. Single honors degrees are still very popular in Britain (tending to provide the paradigm for first-degree studies), but English is also widely studied in combination with other subjects. And the modularization of (most) British university programs makes a range of elective choices possible for the student.1 There is a heavy predominance of female over male students, in the order of 73:27. (This is not yet fully reflected in staffing, despite improvements in recent years.) It is important also to point out that the U.K. system, despite a major [End Page 335] university building program in the 1960s, remained an elite system until relatively recently. A major expansion of student numbers since the early 1990s has led to a participation rate of around 38 percent of the eighteen-year-old cohort. It is the government's ambition that by 2010, 50 percent of those under age thirty will have participated in some way in higher education. Since resourcing has not kept pace with numbers, one effect has been a steady and inexorable increase in the ratio of students to academic staff.

As a subject, English has not been altogether successful in reaching out to a wider social range. Comparatively few working-class students, or students from ethnic minorities, study the subject. While, traditionally, English has attracted a relatively high proportion of older students, the vast majority of undergraduates are now recruited from high school at the age of eighteen. Outside Scotland, where the traditional universities have a four-year (MA) program, we are talking about a three-year BA degree. In what is still known as the sixth form2 (or separate sixth-form "college"), students will have studied for the Advanced-Level General Certificate of Education (generally called "A-levels"; the less regimented Scottish equivalent is referred to as "Highers"). There are three versions of English A-level: English literature, English language, and combined language and literature. Although students can choose among various syllabi, both assessment objectives and curriculum are the subject of tightly controlled national standards. In general, across the sectors, the culture of learning outcomes, guidelines, and transparency about marking criteria has proved two edged. This apparatus quite clearly helps students to understand what is required of them. But simultaneously it enhances a mechanistic approach to gaining marks and, in an increasingly commodified culture, tends to mean that student work is assessed against standardized taxonomies.

In terms of institutions, around 120 universities or university colleges in the United Kingdom offer English degrees. It is important to stress that U.K. universities (with one exception) are effectively state institutions, and state funding constitutes their core (and in many cases almost all of their) revenue. This makes them peculiarly liable to be treated as agents of public policy, for example in responding to the skills deficit or in breeding up a generation equipped for participation in the global economy. In the humanities, core research funds are allocated via the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), a peer-reviewed system for assessing the...


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pp. 335-339
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