English Studies Provision in UK Higher Education

Black cover of the report with the report title in white font and British Academy logo
The British Academy
Number of pages


English Studies Provision in UK Higher Education provides insight into the health of English disciplines over the last decade.

English Studies encompasses vital disciplines within the humanities, including English Literature, Language and Creative Writing. The English Studies community is intensely collaborative, with initiatives and activity across multiple learned societies and subject associations. This report is designed to serve as a resource for the English Studies community to better understand the complex trends experienced across UK higher education and as an evidence base for future activity related to the health and sustainability of the discipline.

Key findings from this report include:

English Studies disciplines are a significant part of humanities provision at undergraduate level, but aggregate numbers have reduced over recent years.

English Studies students make up 22% of all first degree undergraduates across the humanities. However, between 2012 and 2019, first degree undergraduates across English Studies fell by 20%. While first degree students domiciled in England, Wales and Northern Ireland fell significantly over the last decade, those from Scotland increased by 12%. Differing higher education funding models, demographic changes and policy reform to pre-university qualifications may have all contributed to this divergence.

Despite an overall decline in student numbers for English Studies in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, evidence shows that there are highly uneven patterns of student numbers across different institutions within these jurisdictions. Some institutions have experienced growth in undergraduate student recruitment while others have experienced reductions in numbers.

Postgraduate students studying English Studies disciplines have increased in recent years.

Despite the downward trend in undergraduate numbers, the pipeline of students pursuing postgraduate study appears healthy at present. Between 2012 and 2019, English Studies has seen an increase of 27% in postgraduate taught students. This growing demand for postgraduate study contrasts with undergraduate numbers over the same period. Furthermore, postgraduate research students in English Studies increased by 8% between 2019 and 2021. This is a positive indication of the continued development of an environment that facilitates and nurtures high quality research. Postgraduate leavers develop careers across a wide range of sectors, entering the employment market with important transferable skills and subject expertise.

English Studies graduates show good levels of employment after university.

English Studies graduates are employed in professional roles 15 months after leaving their studies. In 2019/20, 57% of first degree graduates in employment were in ‘Professional’ or ‘Associated Professional’ roles. The proportion grew at postgraduate levels, with 70% of master’s graduates and 84% of doctoral leavers in employment working in ‘Professional’ or ‘Associated Professional’ roles. English Studies graduate activity covers a breadth of sectors, including notable levels of progression into education, publishing, management consultancy, computer programming and consultancy, and advertising. Many these sectors are part of the fast-growing creative industries. English Studies graduates also had positive responses to the Graduate Outcome reflection questions, with 71% of English Studies graduates agreeing with the statement ‘my current activity is meaningful’, and 66% agreeing that their current activity fits with their future plans.

The recent Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021) shows a very substantial proportion of English studies research to be world-leading, with excellence spread across the country both regionally and institutionally.

The REF 2021 exercise found that 48% of research in English Studies was world leading. The research assessed by the REF 2021 found that there is excellence in English Studies across all regions and institution types as well as department sizes. The REF 2021 also showed that English Studies has responded to changing conditions innovatively and with versatility — researchers across the disciplines are carrying the practices of English Studies into the future of research, including the areas of technology and digitisation, eco criticism, the medical humanities, postcolonialism and migration studies.

While there have been improvements in the diversity of those studying and teaching English Studies, the data shows there is still some way to go to achieve representation.

A lack of diversity was a key cause for concern for many interviewees, particularly in terms of fostering an innovative and open research and learning culture. In 2020/21, students studying English Studies were under-representative of the wider UK population in terms of ethnicity and sex. Declining numbers of part-time and mature students also indicate challenges in terms of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). There are also complex and intersecting issues relating to EDI among English Studies staff. In 2020/21, women and people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds were less likely to be employed at professor level and more likely to be employed on short-term contracts. These issues may affect EDI across English Studies staff in the long term.

The British Academy Observatory

As the UK’s National Academy for the humanities and social sciences, it is the British Academy’s role to support, strengthen and champion these disciplines. This report has been produced as part of the Academy’s wider Observatory function, which seeks to monitor the health and sustainability of SHAPE disciplines. It follows previous Academy studies on its constituent disciplines. This includes the pilot report on the provision of Theology and Religious Studies (2019) in UK higher education and a report on Business and Management Studies (2021). The Academy is committed to providing its community of constituent disciplines with the evidence required to understand and reflect on their health and sustainability. Doing so not only highlights the value of the discipline to society but equips its academic community with a clearer understanding of how they might respond in order to support the development of teaching and research in a changing landscape.

Sign up to our email newsletters