June 28, 2022 - 7:00am

The English Literature department at Sheffield Hallam University will stop offering undergraduate degrees from 2023, in response to government moves to shutter “low value” degrees. The news has stirred up another round of the never-ending debate over what exactly we think university is for — and has confronted cultural conservatives with this impossible dilemma.

Since the start of the modern era university education has more or less uncomfortably married two sometimes-conflicting aims: transmitting the best that’s been thought and said in our culture to a new generation, and serving as a finishing-school for the professional middle classes. But it’s been clear for some years now that outside the cream of elite institutions and courses, much of tertiary education is not delivering on either of these fronts.

In earnings terms, by 2015 higher apprenticeships were delivering better than many degrees, and in 2018 the IFS reported that only 17% of students would ever repay their loan in full. Nor does higher education close the “gender pay gap”. For many, then, the so-called “graduate premium” never materialises.

But until relatively recently, for at least some cultural conservatives, some things still appeared to have value in and of themselves. From this perspective arts degrees don’t need to be justified in “value for money” terms.

This is harder to sustain, though, when even moderate conservatives find themselves at the sharp end of increasingly savage university culture wars — especially in arts faculties. Higher education is now notorious for “woke” students (who recently even cancelled the UK Secretary of State for Education), as well as selecting sharply against conservative teaching staff, and sometimes expelling those deemed guilty of blasphemy against progressive orthodoxy.

And within this orthodoxy, what is meant by “best” is subject to permanent revolution. For radical progressives, the idea of transmitting a tradition is anathema almost by definition: in what sense can we justify transmitting any kind of cultural tradition whatsoever, when this merely amounts to reproducing oppressive ideologies? Accordingly, arts faculties across the country have for some time now faced growing calls to abolish the canon and to “decolonise” literature curricula condemned as overwhelmingly white, patriarchal, colonial, heteronormative and so on. And as the progressive ideological majority has adopted an increasingly take-no-prisoners approach to ensuring its political priors are transmitted as received opinion, even the last holdouts of conservatism in the academy have found themselves besieged.

This puts cultural conservatives in an invidious position. If you retain some residual affection for the role of universities as repositories of cultural tradition, you’re likely to want to support the continued existence of — for example — English Literature degrees inasmuch as they perform this transmission. But when, instead of transmitting canonical culture, arts faculties inveigh against the “canon” as such, there’s little to stop cultural conservatives adding their voices to the philistine chorus demanding that institutions demonstrate value for money, or face the axe.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.