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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

USA vs. UCAS

Reports today note that applications for American Studies degrees are in sharp decline. Pundits suggest that anti-Americanism is the underlying reason.

Maybe, but I'm not convinced. For a start, there was no specific blip after 9/11, when a growing sense of anti-Americanism was noted in much of Europe, embodied somewhat perversely in the notion that the USA was 'asking for it'. In fact, a frequent theme at the 2002 British Association for American Studies conference was that recent events made the discipline more relevant.

I suspect the underlying reasons for the decline are more mundane and less political on the part of the students. Constantly pitching universities in terms of future employment has done plenty of damage to those courses which do not seem to have an immediate pay-off for job-hungry graduates. (For most, reasonable earnings start after turning age 25.) The pool of 18 year-old school leavers is shrinking. 'Clearing' has become like watching cricket/paint dry for many academics, as universities seem to be using the presence of a central nervous system in applicants as the basis for recruitment: few are turned away from their first choices. The demographic oddities of individual colleges that offer American studies - such as an early gig of mine, at a place temporarily designated 'university college', which itself deterred applicants - are insignificant compared to the combination of an ageing population with turning higher education into vocational training.

Time will tell what specifically will happen to American studies. Cheap flights have probably killed off the attractions of a year/semester abroad. But a new political consciousness among 'A' Level students? If this is the case, maybe more will sign up, to find out what the enemy thinks.


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