It was with a feeling of dismay that History UK learnt of the decision of the University of Sunderland to close programmes in History.
We will not comment on the factors that may have led to Sunderland’s failure to recruit sufficient students for 2020 entry, when regional applications to study history have risen. Our sympathies are with the staff – staff who helped the subject climb seven places in the most recent Good University Guide league table, and who contributed to one of Sunderland’s best performances in the 2014 REF. Our sympathies are also with the department’s current students, whose studies will be harmed by this decision, and potential future students, from predominantly disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, who will be denied the opportunity to study history at their local institution.
The decision is all the more disappointing as it comes at a time when the study of history has never been more important for the health of our civic culture, and our sense of national self-understanding. Whether it is negotiating our new post-Brexit place in the world, evaluating our colonial legacies, or comprehending and contextualising contemporary social movements (from the #MeToo movement to populism, and from the climate emergency to a resurgence of anti-semitism), an historically-informed public debate is vital for our future. History departments and historians need to be part of that debate and both ought to be core to the activities of any university deserving the name.
This makes it imperative that History UK challenge and refute the central justification given by the University of Sunderland for their decision: that the discipline of History is not sufficiently ‘career-focused’. In making this argument, and deploying their Vice-Chancellor David Bell, to repeat it in the national media, the closure of Sunderland’s history department represents an attack on the entire discipline.
Arguments for the value of studying the humanities in general, and history in particular, have been made many times in the past, and the following represent a selection of key points worth emphasising:
- The best potential employees in a modern dynamic economy are not, as all good employers know, those taught to perform a narrow and specific task, but confident, well-rounded, flexible, and, above all, thinking individuals.
- History students gain a range of skills in information gathering, analysis, and communication that are relevant to almost all employment areas.
- The best guarantor of employability, as a joint CBI-UUK report from 2009 argued, lies in developing precisely the ‘soft’, transferable, and person-centred skills which history degrees excel in providing.
- As well as supplying a pipeline of skilled, creative, and dynamic graduates, history contributes directly to the economy through the heritage sector. A recent report from Historic England on behalf of the Historic Environment Forum showed that for England alone Heritage provides a total GVA (gross value added) of £31 billion and over 464,000 jobs.
As historians, we are keenly aware that we ‘have been here before’. Back in 2003, the then Education Secretary Charles Clarke was alleged to have argued that history lacked a ‘clear usefulness’, while in 2018 Robert Halfon, the chair of the Education Select Committee, made a similar point. Both are wrong, and the continued popularity of history as a degree level subject shows that A-level students have a better understanding of its value than many MPs.
Our discipline faces many challenges, including threats to marginalise history teaching in secondary schools and the need to do more to attract BAME students to study our subject. Our task need not be made more difficult by those who seek to minimise their own role in the closure of a department by traducing the reputation of our discipline.
Karin Dannehl (Wolverhampton)
Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores)
David Stack (Reading)
Elizabeth Tingle (De Montfort)
Jamie Wood (Lincoln)