A global view of the discipline: English studies and the QS international league tables

While most university league tables come and go without cause for comment, some present trends that are impossible to ignore. For me, the recent QS subject-level table for English Language and Literature falls into the latter category. The top-100 list includes fourteen Asian universities, up from three the previous year. All but one of these has moved forward significantly: two have leapt from outside the top-100 into the top 30. South Korea has four universities on the list, having had none before.

For those of us comfortably settled in Anglophone countries, rather assuming that we have a natural disciplinary advantage in this particular discipline, these figures pose some interesting questions. What might they tell us about the way the discipline is perceived internationally? What might they suggest about the future?

Making sense of QS

The QS tables are at the ‘rough and ready’ end of the market, less prestigious than the THE equivalents (which don’t break down to subject level). They’re compiled on three bases: citations, academic reputation, and employer reputation. This year the rise of Asian universities has been the headline across the board. Looking elsewhere in the humanities: in History there are twelve (three new entrants); in Modern Languages there are eighteen, though that’s fairly stable from 2014. (How QS distinguishes between ‘Modern Languages’ and ‘English’, since the latter is a subset of the former in many parts of the world, is another matter.)

How might we explain these trends? The authorized account, put forward in The Guardian report, is that Asian universities are aggressively investing in higher education while the UK is treading water. This is absolutely true. Asian countries (in fact, all sorts of countries apart from the UK) also tend to be more elitist in their funding models, identifying a small number of institutions for enhanced support. If these conditions hold over coming years, it’s almost inconceivable that the overall trend will not continue, and equally inconceivable that the trend for UK universities will be down rather than up.

I wonder whether another explanation for the shifts on the English list might lie in methodological tweaks. (There was certainly something curious happening behind the curtains, as the release of these results was delayed for several weeks.) For instance, might there have been more Asian responses this time to the reputational surveys? Given the size of the Asian population, this would perhaps make sense: and an employer in Beijing is not very likely to list UK English departments as favoured sources of employees. Might there have been more attention, in the citational data, to Asian (and Asian-language) journals? There are a lot of them in our field. Whether these changes are ‘corrections’, ‘over-corrections’, or something else again remains to be seen. But I think it would be foolish to ignore them.

The QS guide to the future

For me, this league table gives us a fascinating glimpse of how our discipline is viewed across the globe. It’s a growing field in many parts of the world: growth fuelled in part by demand for English speakers, and in part by growing signs of interest in what the humanities might offer (as opposed to vocational, science-heavy degrees). My hunch – not entirely without evidence – is that the growth of liberal arts education in Asia could be one of the big international educational trends of the next twenty years. Futhermore, once there’s a critical mass of English departments and academics across the region, it makes sense that they should professionalize in all the usual ways: establish their own journals, conferences, and reputational hierarchies. All of this is happening.

And it should be said that the discipline, in these contexts, looks very familiar. There’s unquestionably considerable emphasis on English language and linguistics in such contexts, as one might expect. But there’s also a consistent attention to more traditional, period-based study of English-language (especially English and American) literature. I’ve visited a few of the Chinese universities on the list and been impressed by the range, ambition and resources. The staff-student ratios at Peking University (number 30 on the QS English list, and bound to rise further) are beyond the wildest dreams of anyone working in the UK.

I know less about South Korea, so I spent some time with websites. There are some substantial, literature-focused departments, on the list, staffed by research-active academics. At Seoul National University the mission-statement begins: ‘The Department of English Language and Literature trains students in English language skills necessary for scholarly research, and provides students with in-depth knowledge of a broad range of subjects in the fields of English linguistics and literature. Students may specialize either in English linguistics or English and American literature.’ Many UK and US departments would be happy to stand behind that.

So what might all this mean for the future of the discipline? It’s interesting to me that, despite a league table listing English departments from all over the world alongside each other, there’s still relatively little engagement between departments in some parts of the world and those in other parts. English literature academics occasionally talk about the discipline ‘on both sides of the Atlantic’, as though this is the extent of it. (As an Aussie, I’ve always found that a bit offensive.) Conceivably this could continue: we could have a discipline fractured into geographical sub-groups, all with their respectable forms of interaction.

But I hope not. The opportunities for creative international engagement, and for refreshing our discipline in the process, are huge. We’ve made some initial steps in this direction at Exeter, and we’re certainly not the only ones doing so. And in my own field of research, some of the work on global Shakespeare is at the cutting-edge of the discipline, using digital technology to forge international dialogues. If ‘English literature and language’ academics on all continents start to move in these directions, looking for ways of collaborating in research and teaching, we all could be in for exciting times.

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