Studying history should not be only for the elite, say academics

Last updated: 05-26-2021

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Studying history should not be only for the elite, say academics

Some of Britain’s biggest names in the education field of history are warning that the subject could be at risk of becoming a degree for the elite, after two modern universities announced plans to close down their history courses.

Aston University in Birmingham and London South Bank University informed staff last month that they would be cutting history degrees. Aston is consulting on plans to close its entire department of history, languages and translation, and London South Bank has said its degree courses in history and human geography will not recruit from this autumn.

Experts warn that with the government pushing universities to focus on perceived “high value” Stem and vocational courses leading to higher salaries, more history and other humanities courses could face closure. And with universities able to expand their numbers unrestricted, Russell Group institutions at the elite end of the sector are taking more students, while some modern universities are struggling to recruit.

A spokesperson for LSBU said that out of its 7,000 new students for the current academic year “fewer than 40 enrolled in the courses that are closing”. At Aston, the university is involved in a consultation with affected staff and the University and College Union.

Prof Kate Williams, a popular historical author and presenter on TV history programmes including the BBC’s Restoration Home and Time Watch: Young Victoria, said: “I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, history is protected at the top Russell Group universities’. But that is a really dangerous route to go down. Are we saying that if people don’t get 3As, they don’t deserve to do history?”

Williams, who is a professor of public engagement with history at the University of Reading, fears that working-class students who don’t want to leave home to go to university, or can’t afford to, may find themselves unable to study the subject. “It should be a degree that is open to all, and that means it must be available to those who want to study locally. Otherwise we might as well be going back to the Victorian period when this sort of university education was only for elite men.”

Williams said she was angry that the government is “pushing a vision that only Stem subjects [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] matter and degrees are only worthwhile if you immediately move to a job paying a very high salary”.

“History is so important,” she said. “It explores and tells us who we are. We should be doing more of it as a country, not less.”

Michael Wood, a professor of public history at the University of Manchester, who has been presenting popular history TV programmes since the 1970s, agreed: “You can’t understand the world without history. For universities not to offer that possibility to people, and not to offer it to ordinary folks, the sort of general audience I have been in contact with, is terrible.”

Richard J Evans, a former regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge and the author of bestselling books on the Hitler era, said: “History is an absolutely core subject, along with English and modern languages, which are also under threat in some of the modern universities.”

Evans argued that Conservative MPs have attempted to portray history as just “a collection of facts about the British past which you instil into young people to make them patriotic”. He said a history degree should be about equipping students from all backgrounds with the critical skills needed to navigate modern life.

“In the present day, where we are overwhelmed by floods of misinformation and conspiracy theories, it is more important than ever to have the skills to look critically at the evidence and to distinguish fact from fiction,” he said.

Amal Al-Azzani, a third-year history student at Aston University, who grew up in a single-parent family in Birmingham and was the first generation to go to university, said: “We are all so confused and shocked. I feel like the skills I am learning in this degree, I could take anywhere. It’s about putting together information and backing up an argument with evidence. The idea that history isn’t an employable degree is just bizarre.”

Historians want the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to end his frequent threats about pushing out so-called “low value” courses, and to publicly back humanities subjects. Research by the British Academy has shown that of the 10 fastest-growing sectors in the UK economy, eight employ more graduates from the arts, humanities and social sciences than other disciplines, with these graduates working in areas including financial services, education, social work, the media and creative industries.

Emma Griffin, the president of the Royal Historical Society and professor of modern British history at the University of East Anglia, was anxious that her degree, which she said was very accessible and produced “rounded” graduates, must not become the preserve of the middle classes. “For reasons of cost, many students need to study at their local university. Understanding our own past shouldn’t be a luxury pursuit for the privileged few, and we think that everyone should have a history option.”

Griffin warned that more history closures are already on the horizon. “There are more in discussion, and there are academics at other universities who feel their positions are threatened.”

She said the removal of the cap on student numbers, allowing elite universities to expand, made the demise of smaller history departments in less prominent universities “inevitable”. “These aren’t blips or unfortunate mishaps, it is the government’s policy working as it was designed to,” she said.

Unlike subjects with expensive kit or laboratories, expanding a subject like history is a relatively cheap way for a successful university to increase its income from £9,250 a year fees. But Griffin said that cramming more students in has negative effects on the degree. “A history department cannot suddenly absorb lots more students without an impact on quality. Universities won’t employ new permanent teaching staff for a trend that might prove temporary, so inevitably you just get a casualised workforce managing the extra teaching workload, as well as a lot of stress and overwork amongst the existing staff.”

Prof Catherine Fletcher, an expert on Renaissance and early modern European history at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “History colleagues at more than one Russell Group university have told me of the stress they are under with soaring numbers of personal tutees and lecture theatres packed to the rafters.”

She added: “This gives more choice to some students, but leaves others from less privileged backgrounds with no options at all.”

The University and College Union is fighting the closures at Aston and LSBU, as well as other proposed humanities job cuts at universities including Chester, Leicester and Hull.

Jo Grady, its general secretary, said: “Unfortunately, it looks as though the Conservative government only values education in crude economic terms. We would expect vice-chancellors to defend courses that support students to engage in critical thought. Yet too many are happy to throw students, staff and their local community under the bus by cutting education provision.”

She added that academics and parents must fight back against the idea that “only those who are privileged” can pursue non-vocational courses like history, while “everyone else must only think about employability when engaging with education”.

The spokesperson for LSBU said: “Decisions around the courses we offer to prospective students are taken very carefully. We consider how they provide students with the skills they need to enter high-quality jobs or further study, previous enrolment levels and how they support social mobility and student success.”


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