As UK universities close their English literature courses and Rishi Sunak wages war on degrees that ‘don’t increase earning potential’, we celebrate 40 influential graduates and talk to some of them about what English lit meant to them. Introduction by Jeffrey Boakye
I love words. I’ve always loved reading. I’m fascinated by narrative and the shape of stories, and how literature can be used to express the breadth and depth of human experiences.
None of the above is particularly surprising. I’ve turned writing into a career, fuelled by reading and the intellectual journeys that come in tow. Like you, like everyone, there are many different things that I could have done and a variety of skills that I could have explored. But my bookish tendencies led me on a literary path as I slalomed through school, GCSEs, A-levels, and eventually undergraduate studies in English, at university.
And boom, just like that, this whimsical, heartfelt piece of writing has already been derailed by the serious business of “qualifications”; those slips of paper that allow passage from one set of educational checkpoints to another. Look what happened. I started out with a declaration of my love of words and barely a paragraph later, I find myself referencing the big three currencies of formal assessment. Sigh.
In a way, this is the great tragedy of modern education – how it gets reduced into pure, cold pragmatism, a series of steps towards gainful employment and financial security. This attitude is codified in a set of new rules proposed by the government, refusing to fund courses if fewer than 60% of students are in professional jobs or studying for a further degree within 15 months of graduating. Already, Sheffield Hallam has dropped its English literature course, citing low demand, while Cumbria and Roehampton have also announced big cuts to the humanities. Ucas, the universities admissions service, has revealed that the number of acceptances for English studies (including English literature) has fallen from 9,480 in 2012 to 6,435 in 2021. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak has stated an intention to phase out degrees that don’t “increase earning potential”, revealing a myopic prejudice against subjects that don’t have an immediate monetary value. This speaks not only to the declining status of humanities and the arts, but, crucially, to an economic climate in which these disciplines lose value in the first place.
I wasn’t thinking about my salary or earning potential when I opted to study literature and write essays. I just knew that literature was a portal to worlds I had never experienced and a way of meeting people I could never meet elsewhere; a way of exploring new thoughts. Even better was what I didn’t realise I was signing up for. Studying English gave me the gift of criticality. I learned to read, really read, for meaning. I learned how to unpick and examine, to contextualise and empathise, to peek into blindspots that I didn’t know I had. I honed the craft of critical thinking, which I took with me into a 15-year career in teaching and continue to lean on as a writer of analytical nonfiction.
Now more than ever, we need to be encouraging successive generations to enter the world with curiosity, sensitivity and criticality. The polarised nature of popular politics and swelling tides of historic bigotry show us that we need intimacy with the lived experiences of marginalised groups and awareness of how dominant identities have been constructed, as well as critical distance from the ideologies that threaten to consume us. The arts are a crucial location of these aims and, for me, literature has been where ideological fault lines are best addressed.
As a teacher of English, it’s been a joyous thing to invite young people into broad continents of thought through stories and words, poems and prose, lyrics and essays. And it’s alarming to see the arts demoted in our educational system at large. As a society, our stories, plural, are the most valuable things we have. They enable us to connect and make sense of ourselves through time. That’s what I’ve seen in my own classrooms; young people coming to life through exposure to narratives, often dissimilar to their own, but often resonating with their own lived experiences.
We’re in a crisis. The promises of old are ringing hollow: that getting through university will guarantee a certain standard of living at the other end. Is it any wonder that fewer people are choosing to study degrees that don’t offer an immediate vocational payoff? Spiralling living costs and financial insecurity are fuelling a very logical anxiety. The kind of jobs that a degree in English has historically been converted into (like teaching) are failing to attract new recruits. It’s an obvious chain of events. Fewer English graduates means fewer teachers of English, meaning fewer people like me using words and stories to help make the world a better place.
There are obvious consequences to treating education as purely transactional. If the only prize on offer is personal economic gain, humanity suffers. Because ultimately, the real prize is insight and empathy, which has to be why we read – and write – in the first place.
Jeffrey Boakye graduated in English from the University of Leicester in 2003 and is the author of I Heard What You Said (Pan Macmillan)
The eldest of three children, born in north London to a Jamaican mother and an English father, Smith was the first person in her family to go to university. She began writing her acclaimed first novel, White Teeth, while studying and it was published in 2000. She has written four further novels to date, as well as collections of essays and short stories. Of her time at university she says: “My degree was the basis of everything else. I read more books in those three years than I ever read before – more than I’ve read since. To give a kid like me an education like that, for free, was something England used to do. Thanks to a series of venal, short-term political decisions, I was one of the last generation of students to experience it. It’s a crime.”
Biggest hit White Teeth has been translated into more than 20 languages, won multiple awards and sold over a million copies.
Terry was brought up in Weston-super-Mare, where she attended comprehensive schools before getting a place at Cardiff and then Rada. Of studying English, she says: “Three years of reading stories: three years of imagining worlds elsewhere; three years of very few lectures or seminars, which meant I could spend time doing what I really wanted to do… which turned out to be reading more stories and imagining more worlds elsewhere. Stepping into someone else’s shoes is an empathic muscle that we could all do with exercising right now.”
Biggest hit Terry became artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe in London in 2018.
Brought up in Dorset, Daldry won a scholarship to study at Sheffield, before starting his career as an apprentice at the city’s Crucible theatre. He ran the Royal Court in London, directed Billy Elliot (2000), The Hours, The Reader and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and the stage adaptation of Billy Elliot.
Biggest hit The film Billy Elliot has grossed over $100m worldwide.
Siddiq hails from a Bangladeshi political dynasty; her aunt, Sheikh Hasina, is the country’s prime minister. She was raised in London, her mother having claimed asylum as a teenager. After graduation she worked for Amnesty International, the Greater London Authority, Save the Children, and in political consulting. She has been Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn since 2015. Of her English literature degree, she says: “Reading different books and different genres of literature meant that I gained an insight into worlds that are not my own, which in turn built empathy in my character. And empathy is the most crucial personality trait for politicians.
“My degree also meant I read many books by innovative thinkers through history (political ones included, such as Mary Wollstonecraft), which helps give context to and deeper understanding of the world we live in today. This has been particularly valuable to me when imagining how things can be done in future.”
Biggest hit Siddiq was instrumental in the campaign to free her constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from detention in Iran.
Born and brought up in Leeds, Bailey Rae started singing in a church choir. She formed a rock band, Helen, while still at school, then studied English at Leeds before taking a job in the cloakroom at a jazz club. Her first album, released in 2006, included the hit single Put Your Records On. She has subsequently released two more albums, The Sea and The Heart Speaks in Whispers.
Biggest hit Her eponymous debut album reached No 1 in Britain and sold nearly 4 million copies worldwide.
Lees grew up in Nottinghamshire, brought up largely by her aunt and her grandmother. She was given a two-year prison sentence for robbery at the age of 18, and started studying for her A-levels when she was released on curfew, gaining a place at Brighton to study English. She says: “I was the first person in my family to go to university and I almost dropped out at several points, as I was being messed about by the NHS and forced to wait to be seen by the Gender Identity Clinic. I was also facing family rejection and people abusing me in the street. When my mum came on graduation day it marked a change in our relationship – and when she put up the photo of me holding my degree on her mantelpiece, I knew she had accepted the fact that I had transitioned.”
Lees went on to work in journalism, founding the first British magazine aimed at the trans community, META. She is the first trans columnist at Vogue and was the first trans woman to present shows on BBC Radio 1 and Channel 4.
Biggest hit Lees’s book, What It Feels Like for a Girl, was published in 2021.
The Royal Court staged Butterworth’s play Mojo in 1995; other credits include the film Birthday Girl, and plays The River and The Ferryman. TV work includes three series of Britannia for Sky.
Biggest hit Jerusalem, currently back in the West End, has been described as “the greatest play of the 21st century”.
Waters grew up in Wales and attended a grammar school before going to Kent university. She says: “My English literature degree was the foundation of my career: it led me to an MA, followed by a PhD, which fed directly into my first novel. I simply would never have gone on to become an author without it. But it also taught me how to be a critical reader: how to understand that novels and stories are conversations we have with ourselves about the world, about what life means and how we should live it. It taught me that narratives of all kinds needn’t be taken at face value: that they can be relished but also challenged, rewritten, overturned.”
Waters is the author of six novels, including Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, many of which have been adapted for stage, TV and film. Her novels have been shortlisted for the Booker prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Biggest hit Waters was awarded an OBE in 2019 for services to literature.
Jones went into advertising after graduation, but soon gave up her job to work in a restaurant, moving up from waitressing into management. In her early 20s she set up Theme Restaurants, and founded Cafe Rouge in 1989. She is the executive chair of Italian restaurant chain Prezzo, among other chains. During the pandemic she worked closely with ministers and was the only hospitality representative on the government’s Build Back Better business council. Jones was appointed chancellor of the University of East Anglia in 2016. Of her English degree, she says: “I treasure it daily for the worlds it allowed me to enter and the characters I met there. It taught me how to bring strands of thinking together and write succinctly. The ability I acquired to skim read has also proved extremely handy!”
Biggest hit Sold The Pelican Group to Whitbread for £133m in 1996.
Bird grew up in Macclesfield and began his career at Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio, answering the phones for Timmy Mallett’s show. After graduating he moved to London to work for Virgin’s music channel, and then became managing director of UBC Media, before joining the US broadcasting giant Turner. He later spent 14 years at Disney, helping the company expand globally, and is now CEO of Pearson, the world’s largest education company.
Biggest hit Appointed CBE in 2012 for services to UK media and entertainment.
Davies made his name as a screenwriter with Channel 4’s Queer As Folk, and in 2005 took on the reboot of Doctor Who; the show has since won 36 Baftas. It’s a Sin, an 80s-set story about the Aids pandemic, became the most viewed show ever on C4’s streaming platform.
Biggest hit Doctor Who has earned more than £300m in revenue for the BBC.
A Glaswegian, Boyle began performing standup aged 23 and gained widespread recognition as a regular on Mock the Week from 2005-2009. He has had his own TV shows, written three nonfiction books, and recently published his debut novel, Meantime.
Biggest hit Meantime went straight into the bestseller lists.
DJ Yoda, also known as Duncan Beiny, grew up in north London and began performing as a DJ while studying at Warwick. He has been involved in many unusual collaborations, working with classical composers to neuroscientists, brass bands to film directors. His specialism is re-scoring classic films, and in 2014 he was commissioned by the BFI to create a tribute to sci-fi films. He released his first album, The Amazing Adventures of DJ Yoda, in 2006, and in 2009 was nominated for a Sony award. He says of his English degree: “On a surface level my time at university was most helpful to my career, because I was DJing at the student union and local clubs, picking up valuable experience performing in front of crowds.
“Studying English, I learned to write lucidly, and I wrote for several music magazines for many years after university. Learning about structure of narrative, how to get across ideas to an audience, and the history of culture have all played into how I put together music. So I guess it turns out studying Shakespeare has more to do with hip-hop DJing than I realised.”
Biggest hit His Stranger Things mix became a viral hit, racking up more than half a million plays on Soundcloud.
Carvel was brought up in London, and trained as an actor at Rada after graduating from Sussex. He has played Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical in the UK and on Broadway, Rupert Murdoch in James Graham’s play Ink, and Donald Trump in Mike Bartlett’s The 47th.
Biggest hit Matilda the Musical grossed $198m on Broadway alone.
Chiles grew up in Worcestershire and worked at his father’s scaffolding business before taking his English degree. He then studied journalism at Cardiff and became a sports reporter for News of the World. He later joined the BBC as a business reporter and presenter on The One Show. Chiles left the BBC in 2010 for ITV, where he presented a breakfast show and hosted football broadcasts.
Biggest hit Chiles’s ITV contract was worth £6m over four years.
Grant was born in Liverpool to parents from immigrant backgrounds. She graduated from York University, later completing an MA in Canada. She published her first novel, The Cast Iron Shore, in 1996 and has since written 12 books, both fiction and nonfiction. She remembers the English course at York as “a straightforward survey course of periods of almost exclusively English literature… I don’t think we studied any living authors. Fifty years later it seems laughably arcane and rigid. But what it did, and what we were told at the time it was intended to do, was to teach us how to think, not just feel about literature. It didn’t matter whether we found any of the characters in the novels we read likable, relatable, or relevant to our personal experience. The course taught us how to analyse and understand.”
Biggest hit When I Lived in Modern Times (2000) won the Orange prize for fiction.
Dacre grew up in Enfield; his father was a journalist and his mother a teacher. He got a scholarship to private school, working as a messenger at the Sunday Express in the holidays. At Leeds he edited the university newspaper, and joined the Daily Express in Manchester on graduation. He joined the Mail in 1979, and went on to become the title’s longest-serving editor. He stood down in 2018, but was reappointed as editor-in-chief of the Mail’s parent company.
Biggest hit In February 1997, Dacre splashed on the Stephen Lawrence case, naming the suspects under the headline “murderers” and daring them to sue. Politicians including Jack Straw acknowledged that the Mail’s position helped bring about a public inquiry.
Dent was brought up in Carlisle and started working as a journalist while studying at Stirling. She started freelancing on graduation, writing columns for the Guardian, several novels for teenagers and a memoir. She is the Guardian’s restaurant critic and presents the podcast Comfort Eating and The Untold on Radio 4.
Biggest hit Won the 2019 Guild of Food Writers award for best writer.
Monty Don was expelled from school, failed his A-levels, and worked on a building site and on a pig farm while studying for retakes. He got into Cambridge, he has said, through “sheer bloody-mindedness”. He has been making TV programmes for more than 30 years, principally on gardening, and was the Observer’s gardening editor from 1994-2006.
Biggest hit Has sold £10m worth of books.
Gove was put into care as a baby and adopted at the age of four months. He joined the Conservative party at Oxford. After a career in journalism, Gove was first elected as an MP in May 2005. He has been secretary of state for education, justice and the environment.
Biggest hit Played a prominent role in the successful campaign to leave the EU.
Hatton grew up in Gloucestershire and was a talented athlete from a young age, competing at a national level. She studied English with sports science at Loughborough, and went on to train at the London School of Musical Theatre. She has appeared in West End productions including We Will Rock You and Wicked, and is now establishing herself as a jazz and blues singer.
Biggest hit Played the title role in a sell-out run of Evita.
Knopfler worked as a journalist before deciding to study English, and recorded his first demo while in Leeds. He went on to be the lead guitarist, singer and songwriter of Dire Straits, one of the bestselling bands of all time.
Biggest hit Dire Straits sold more than 120m records worldwide.
Swift grew up in Croydon. He won a scholarship to study at Dulwich College and went on to Cambridge, before doing a PhD on the 19th-century novel at York University. He started his career doing casual teaching work, and published his first novel, The Sweet Shop Owner, when he was 31. In 1983 he was part of the lineup of “Best of Young British Novelists” published by Granta magazine, which included Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Pat Barker and Julian Barnes. He says: “Studying English didn’t make me a writer. I made myself a writer – covertly. Before taking my degree, I dutifully saw a careers tutor. He suggested hospital management. All this said, I was immensely fortunate. For three years I read some of the best things ever written – not just English literature – at a time, the 1960s, when it was good, in other ways, to be alive and young. At the equivalent time in his life, my father had fought in a war.”
Biggest hit Swift’s sixth novel, Last Orders (1996), won the Booker prize and was adapted into a film starring Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins.
Lewis was brought up in Pontypool and went to stage school until the age of 12. He was capped as a rugby player at under-10 and under-20 level, and as an 18-year-old was named Singha Premiership Rugby 7s man of the round at Cardiff Arms Park. He is also a rapper with more than 36,000 listeners of his EP SMS on SoundCloud.
Biggest hit Was part of the Wales Sevens rugby squad for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Lucas was born in Worcestershire. At Exeter she became involved in political movements including CND and the Greenham Common protests. After graduating with a first-class degree, she did a PhD on women as readers in Elizabethan romance. She started her career at Oxfam and then joined the Green party as a communications officer. Lucas was a member of the European parliament before being elected Britain’s first Green MP in 2010, a position she has maintained, increasing her majority in each election. She sits on cross-parliamentary groups on fuel poverty and renewable energy.
Biggest hit Lucas has been working to push through the climate and ecology bill, which will force the UK to enact a serious plan in response to the climate emergency.
As Annie Mac she presented a daily music show on BBC Radio 1 until 2021, and continues to play house music at festivals and events around the world. She now produces her own podcast, Changes With Annie Macmanus, and published her first novel in 2021.
Biggest hit Mac added 110,000 listeners to Radio 1’s flagship dance show.
Patel was born in Wembley, London to parents who were pharmacists. While studying English at Warwick, he got involved in student theatre. On graduating he made a brief foray into journalism before going to Guildhall to study acting. He says: “Studying literature teaches you to treat a story like it’s a precious gem. The good ones reveal all kinds of hidden meanings when you hold them up to the light. It’s something I try to hold on to each time I pick up a new script.”
Patel has since starred in the colonial-era drama Indian Summers, Mindy Kaling’s Four Weddings and a Funeral remake and most recently the lockdown online drama Good Grief opposite Fleabag’s Sian Clifford.
Biggest hit Patel starred alongside Rose Matafeo in the acclaimed BBC One romcom Starstruck.
Mendes directed his first plays while at Cambridge, and on graduation went to work at the Chichester Festival theatre. He was appointed artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in 1990, and made his film directorial debut with American Beauty, for which he won an Oscar. He has since directed films including Skyfall and Spectre in the Bond franchise, and the war epic 1917.
Biggest hit Skyfall grossed more than $1bn worldwide.
Nolan was fascinated by films from a young age, but decided to study English, choosing UCL for its film facilities. He gained international recognition with his second film, Memento, for which he was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay. He has since directed The Prestige, the Dark Knight trilogy and Dunkirk.
Biggest hit His films have grossed more than $5bn worldwide and won 11 Oscars.
Born in Glasgow, O’Hagan was the first in his family to go to university. He joined the London Review of Books on graduation, and is still editor-at-large. He has published six novels and three nonfiction books. Of his experience at university, he says: “I believed then, as I still do, that having a humanities education is one of the luckiest things that can happen to a person. It gives you things to think about for the rest of your life. When people say it doesn’t help you get a job, they’re missing the point – it helps you get a life.”
Biggest hit Our Fathers (1999), his first novel, was shortlisted for the Booker prize and the Whitbread first novel award.
Munchetty grew up in Streatham, London, her parents having emigrated from India and Mauritius. After graduating she worked on the City pages of the Evening Standard and now presents BBC Breakfast.
Biggest hit In September 2019, a ruling that Munchetty had breached BBC guidelines by criticising Donald Trump was overturned.
Prebble wrote her first play, Liquid, at university. She went on to write The Sugar Syndrome for the Royal Court, followed by Enron, The Effect and A Very Expensive Poison. For television she adapted Secret Diary of a Call Girl and co-created I Hate Suzie. Since 2018, Prebble has been an executive producer and writer on the HBO drama Succession.
Biggest hit Succession has won Bafta, Golden Globe and Emmy awards.
Singh was born to a Sikh family in Preston, Lancashire. She graduated with joint honours in English and philosophy, and then did a postgraduate qualification in journalism. She has worked on Good Morning Britain since 2014, most recently as political editor.
Biggest hit Reached the semi-final in 2020’s Strictly Come Dancing.
Issa was born in Cardiff, and has mixed Iraqi and Welsh heritage. Her debut poetry collection, My Body Can House Two Hearts, was published in 2019. She co-founded the Cardiff open-mic night Where I’m Coming From, worked in the writers’ room for Channel 4’s We Are Lady Parts and was a member of the first cohort of writers who took part in Literature Wales’s Representing Wales programme in 2021.
Biggest hit This year, Issa was appointed national poet of Wales, and will serve a three-year term.
After graduating in English, Chesterfield took a postgraduate qualification in cognitive and decision science. She subsequently worked for the Financial Conduct Authority, where she used behavioural science to understand whether regulations were protecting consumers, and is now head of behavioural risk at NatWest. Informed by her experience as a Conservative councillor in Guildford, she co-founded the Depolarization Project, which explores the idea of disagreement and promotes thought about the things that divide us. She says studying English was “a lesson in empathy; feeling what it is like to be someone else and living their reality. A source of wisdom on human behaviour and culture that is richer, deeper and more realistic than any mathematical model. Pure joy.”
Biggest hit Chesterfield’s book Poles Apart, written with Laura Osborne and Alison Goldsworthy, was published in 2021.
Thistleton studied English and creative writing at Salford University. After a stint in the NHS, she started working behind the scenes at CBBC, before being recruited to present a variety of children’s TV shows. Her first book, offering agony-aunt advice, was published in 2018. She presents the Radio 1 show Life Hacks with Vick Hope.
Biggest hit Presented CBBC’s Bitesize educational programming during lockdown, to record viewing figures.
Thompson made her first cinema appearance in The Tall Guy (1989) and has since appeared in a hit films from Howards End to the Harry Potter series, and has written and produced films including Nanny McPhee.
Biggest hit Oscars for best actress in Howards End (1992) and for her screenplay of Sense and Sensibility (1995), a film that grossed $135m.
At Durham, Vine edited the student newspaper and joined a sketch comedy troupe. He has hosted his Radio 2 news and music show since 2003. Prior to that he was a presenter of Newsnight, political correspondent at Westminster, reporter on the Today programme and the BBC’s Africa correspondent, based in Johannesburg. Of his experience at university, he says: “Studying English literature was like opening a window and seeing the world. The most wonderful afternoon of my life was when I climbed up some scaffolding to the roof of Hatfield College, Durham, on a sunny day. I opened Milton’s Paradise Lost and read the whole poem. Little did I know there aren’t afternoons like that in the adult world. I loved my degree and I fell in love with the city of Durham, and the university too.”
Biggest hit His show on Radio 2 attracts more than 7 million listeners weekly.
Wainwright was brought up in Huddersfield and moved to London after graduating, where she became a bus driver. She wrote for The Archers and Coronation Street before writing her first original drama series, At Home With the Braithwaites. Other credits include Scott and Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley and Gentleman Jack.
Biggest hit Baftas for Last Tango in Halifax (2013) , Happy Valley (2015 and 2017).
Ware was brought up in Clapham, London. After graduating she worked briefly as a journalist and in television production before releasing her debut album Devotion in 2012, followed by three more albums. She presents the award-winning food podcast Table Manners with her mother Lennie.
Biggest hit Has been nominated for six Brit awards.