We’d like to thank Rachel Best and Leanne Smith, current and former students of History at the University of Sunderland, for contributing to this blog post, and Dr Sarah Hellawell (Sunderland) for encouraging them to share their experiences with History UK.
Unfortunately, several History programmes have closed down, including the announcement of the end of history-teaching at the University of Sunderland earlier this year, with recent stories about cuts to Humanities departments suggesting that more bad news may be just around the corner. However, as History UK’s response to the closure at Sunderland makes clear, History degrees – and humanities subjects more generally – remain highly relevant and valuable subjects for a wide variety of reasons, including:
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.
The contemporary significance of History has been underlined by the Black Lives Matter movement, while simultaneously being called into question by recent government rhetoric around ‘low value’ degrees, not to mention the outright hostility of some figures in the public eye to academic historians.
It is notable, however, that while professing to speak for students, many critiques of History (and Humanities more generally) at university don’t let students speak for themselves. There is no reference, for instance, to the discipline’s consistently high student satisfaction ratings. The student voice (or voices) purportedly so important to policymakers, is rarely heard.
We were therefore delighted to receive the following contributions from two students of History from the University of Sunderland, which we think give a real flavour of why History matters for them.
Rachel Best, 2nd Year History student, University of Sunderland
The years before I considered doing any sort of degree were years languishing in, what the present government calls, unskilled work. It is far from that, however, but, to some, it may become unfulfilling when these types of jobs become the only option in which to earn a living. I decided, then, to apply for the Politics and History BA Honours course at Sunderland University, as the choices of Politics and History graduates are many when the time comes to explore career options. Additionally, this course allowed me to have an eye on my future, while exploring my passions in an academic setting. It revealed so many more avenues of interest than my mere hobby status in these subjects allowed.
At the beginning, I believed my personal focus would err towards a political weighting of the degree. But, as my studies have progressed, I have found the History modules I chose to be of greater interest and inspiration. I have met many people from the long eighteenth century I had never encountered before, who deepened my understanding of the “whys” and “hows” that frame our engagement with society and the state we live in now. I have met people from Africa, the Americas, Russia, France, Germany, the former Dutch Republic and, of course, the United Kingdom, who have all contributed to, through critique or celebration (but mostly critique!), the social and political organization we see all around us today. It reveals how we are all connected.
Studying this course has opened an inner world that I barely knew existed before I embarked upon my advanced studies. I can write. I never knew that before. I can present evidence and analysis in support of concepts that I was hitherto ignorant of only two years before. I want to be better at this. I have tapped into the rich reserves of academic thought that present humanity at its most complex. I want to know more! This course has given me a purpose. By engaging with the past, History has given me a future.
Leanne Smith, PhD Candidate at Newcastle University, BA and MA History graduate from the University of Sunderland
I had always regretted not going to university when I left school so after the birth of my son, I took the opportunity to fulfil this life-long dream. What I would study was never in question. Whether it was visiting museums, art galleries, watching a documentary (anyone who knows me knows how much I enjoy a documentary), or simply reading a book I have always been fascinated by history. I completed an Access to Higher Education course at college. After attending an open day and an amazing taster session I applied to the University of Sunderland. The course was exactly what I was looking for and as my son was still young, so it was important that I stay local.
As a mature student, I was nervous about attending university. I had never written an essay and had taken my last exam in 1996 but I graduated with a first- class honours degree in 2017. I immediately enrolled onto the new Master’s degree course in Historical Research, also at the University of Sunderland, to pursue my interest in intellectual history. It was during my MA that I started to think about the possibility of applying for a PhD. Because of my circumstances as a single parent I knew that without funding it would be too much of a challenge. With the support of the lecturers at both Sunderland and Newcastle University I put forward and application for funding through the Northern Bridge Consortium. I am now over half-way through the first year as a fully-funded PhD student at Newcastle University.
Studying history has not only expanded my knowledge of the past and allowed me to develop a long list of ‘transferable’ skills but more importantly it has also shown me why knowing our past is important. I had previously, and rather naively, accepted without question what had been written. The history I had known was stories of progress and glorification. Studying history has taught me to challenge the existing historical narratives. To question what I have read and heard. To challenge my own preconceived ideas. For me personally it has provided me with a new way of not only looking at the past but also seeing and understanding the world around me.