In this extended post, Professor Emma Griffin—President of the Royal Historical Society—considers recent cuts at UK History departments, the defence of History and historians at Goldsmiths, and how we best prepare for 2022.
It’s nearly 12 months since I took up the presidency of the Royal Historical Society. When I started in November 2020, I anticipated a first year of getting to know the Society, its Fellows and Members, of new publications, events and workshops and helping support historians during the great disruptions caused by the pandemic.
It’s certainly the case that these activities, and more, have shaped my first year. But what I was not expecting—at least not to the extent witnessed in 2021—has been the number and scale of proposed cuts to History programmes and historians’ careers and livelihoods in UK universities. It’s no exaggeration to say that engaging with historians worried about their futures, and with university managers to defend and support colleagues, has been a prevailing and unwelcome feature of 2021.
Currently there is much attention on Goldsmiths, University of London, where proposed cuts to History (not to mention those in English) threaten 7 full-time posts in a department of 14 historians. Along with other organisations, the RHS is in regular contact with historians at Goldsmiths—not least to gather evidence in defence of their posts and programmes before the end of the consultation period on 11 November. The Society has also been in correspondence with members of the University’s senior management team and governing body to urge them to withdraw the proposals, and to work with the History department to seek an alternative solution.
These engagements at Goldsmiths follow ones earlier this year at Aston University, where the History programme was saved from closure (though regrettably this was not the outcome for other departments), and at Kingston University where the History department was closed and talented, full-time members of academic staff made redundant. Meanwhile, at London South Bank University (LSBU) the History Degree ended this April and the History Faculty at Sunderland closed in 2020. The past months have also seen threats to History provision and staffing at Chester, Hull and Leicester, and I’m presently in contact with colleagues at other UK History departments fearful that similar cuts will soon be announced by their universities.
Confronting the case for cuts
In each of these cases, there are specific circumstances prompting managers to seek reductions and closures. But during the course of 2021 we’ve also seen common themes emerge. For example, announcements typically cite concern over future student numbers, and a decline in A-Level students taking History and consequently going on to study the subject at university. In addition, we hear how students are increasingly focused on degrees that lead to well-paid professional opportunities, of which History is not seen to be one—sentiments bolstered by recent ministerial interventions that speak of ‘low value degrees’ in the humanities.
We’re now witnessing the considerable distortions and imbalances wrought by this deregulation of university admissions.
Less widely discussed, however, is the abolition of the cap on student numbers. An alternative explanation for the pressure on History degrees, especially in smaller institutions, is that we’re now witnessing the considerable distortions and imbalances wrought by this deregulation of university admissions. The extensive negative impact of this initiative—further accelerated by the government’s ruling on A-Level grades in 2020—is of course most evident in departments where student intake is falling. At the same time, however, the Society is contacted by historians at ‘beneficiary’ institutions, struggling to cope with significant and unexpected increases in numbers. These cycles of growth and decline, and the associated insecurity, are a profound shift in the profession and one in which, I hope, we find common cause.
Defending History in a year of cuts
How do we best respond to current and future announcements of cuts and closures? This is no small question and not one the Society can tackle alone. In writing this post I and colleagues at the RHS seek to begin a dialogue and to gather recommendations for the effective defence of History and support of academic historians.
While we seek the historical community’s advice, experience and expertise on future strategies, there are a number of approaches the Society, and other institutions, have undertaken this year in support of those facing redundancy.
We can firstly correct inaccurate and mistaken use of data, and demonstrate the value of those historians in ‘at risk’ departments. We should appreciate that the Vice-Chancellors and academic managers seeking efficiencies are seldom historians or even humanities scholars. It’s therefore vital to make clear when data used to explain cuts are incorrect; just as we need to demonstrate clearly the contribution and reputation that History departments and academics make, nationally and within their local community via public engagement and knowledge exchange.
The proposed cuts at Goldsmiths, for example, are based on a presumption that the ‘pipeline’ for future History students is drying up. In fact, the absolute number of young people taking History at school has followed an upward trend for the past decade and continues to rise. Uptake at GCSE in 2021 was at its highest level in two decades, at 294,807 (contrast with 260,521 five years ago), an increase of 13 percent. This strong recent growth in GCSE History will correct the recent modest drop in A-level entries, which is itself a consequence of a decline in numbers of A-level candidates, rather than a shift away from the subject.
History degrees teach many of the skills that employers seek, including independent and critical thinking, problem solving, and advanced writing. This is amply reflected in the graduate employment market.
We can also correct misunderstandings about the employability dividend of History degrees. As the Society set out in a statement earlier this year, History degrees teach many of the skills that employers seek, including independent and critical thinking, problem solving, and advanced writing. This is amply reflected in the graduate employment market.
The British Academy’s ‘Qualified for the Future’ (2020) shows that employment levels are identical for STEM and AHSS degrees. Studies undertaken by the Institute for Fiscal Studies conclude that once adjustments have been made for socio-economic background characteristics, the difference between returns to specific subjects is not large, and is outweighed by differences between returns to specific institutions. The 2020 Lifetime Earnings Study reveals relatively little difference in lifetime earnings across subjects for either men or women, with History in the middle for both, and (once again) that an individual’s social background matters more than subject.
The case for History at Goldsmiths
Moving from this big picture to individual cases, we can also use our experience as History teachers and researchers to advise on proposed restructuring of a specific department. At Goldsmiths, confirmation that its acclaimed expertise in Black British and Queer History will be protected is welcome, and something to which the university will be held. However, for these pioneering courses to remain viable and meaningful, two key thresholds must be met.
First, these are specifically History programmes, distinctive precisely for being the UK’s only taught access to a high-level historical understanding of the Black British and Queer pasts. To sustain and develop these degrees requires historical expertise, both in terms of subject knowledge and research methodologies, of a kind the department currently provides. To diminish the department’s wider History provision will result in the gradual decline of prestigious programmes that have great potential, of which Goldsmiths should be proud, and which our communities are greatly in need at this time.
Second, these distinctive courses need to exist within a broader team of academic historians, of the kind Goldsmiths currently boasts. Research specialisms and their associated MA programmes can only be sustained in the context of a department with broad chronological, geographical and methodological reach. In recent weeks, Goldsmiths’ management has similarly spoken of its commitment to retaining History as a standalone subject at the college. This again is welcome—not least given the centrality of History to Goldsmiths’ identity for many years. However, for this commitment to be realised, a strong and wide-ranging department is essential.
Our immediate concern is Goldsmiths—a department that’s highly respected nationally and internationally, both for the quality of its teaching and learning and the research conducted by its staff.
It’s crucial we demonstrate and communicate this on behalf of all historians and departments facing cuts. Our immediate concern is Goldsmiths—a department that’s highly respected nationally and internationally, both for the quality of its teaching and learning and the research conducted by its staff.
From conversations with Goldsmiths’ historians, it’s evident how committed they are to enhancing the department’s reputation and appeal, and to addressing short-term problems that are well-understood. This enthusiasm is motivated by the disadvantages experienced by many of Goldsmiths’ History students, often first-time university entrants, for whom the college provides the sole means to enter the University of London, and with it opportunities for new life chances. This, the Society believes, is further reason to celebrate History at Goldsmiths, and to support a balanced department in plans to extend its distinctive offer to greater numbers of future students.
We fear that, if the proposed cuts go ahead, it will mean the effective end of History as a discipline at Goldsmiths—if not immediately then within a few years. This would be a tragedy for an important department within a leading university, and one that has much to offer. To be sure, retrenchment of the kind proposed could be achieved quickly, and see an immediate problem confronted in the short term. Rebuilding these lost skills, resource base and institutional reputation will be another matter altogether.
Supporting History and historians in 2022
What else can we do, given this year’s events at Aston, London South Bank, Kingston and Goldsmiths, and those that may follow in 2022?
As historians our strength is in speaking for the value of historical understanding and practice, and for the talents of targeted departments and individual colleagues—communicating clearly and meaningfully to audiences who do not share our expertise in these fields. We can also learn from the experience of others, including historians at Aston who organised an effective defence of their programme, and on which Dr Ilaria Scaglia wrote recently for this blog. We can likewise take advantage of others’ initiatives, including the open letter to Goldsmiths’ senior management on behalf of its History and English departments, which now has more than 3500 signatories.
We’re looking to gather better information on the extent of UK department and programme closures, and job losses, in History since 2016.
At the RHS we’re also looking to gather better information on the extent of UK department and programme closures, and job losses, in History since 2016. This will help us create a repository of quantitative and qualitative data on cuts within the profession that we can share on request. We now welcome information of this kind, along with recommendations for other categories of data, which may be submitted to the Society.
In turn, we can reiterate how the RHS is contactable at any time by historians concerned for the future of their posts or programmes. This is a message we regularly communicate in our correspondence with Heads of History departments in UK universities. If you are a department head and not receiving these regular email communications, please let us know and we will include you in this exchange.
Finally, we must acknowledge that the environment in which actions at Sunderland, LSBU, Aston, Kingston and Goldsmiths take place is far more challenging and extensive than the remit of a single discipline, let alone an individual organisation. The removal of the student cap is the most obvious and significant shift in this environment, with very real and as yet unknown final consequences. How we engage with this, and what we can achieve, principally for the good of History and historians, is a considerable challenge. Here we must work more closely with other national organisations and networks across the humanities. The Society is now pursuing how best to do this. Again, we welcome suggestions from the historical community.
About the author
Professor Emma Griffin is Professor of Modern British History at the University of East Anglia and President of the Royal Historical Society.