History UK report: Trends in History in UK Higher Education (June 2022)

Today we release our latest report, Trends in History in UK Higher Education (2022). It investigates UK-wide trends in university enrolments and outcomes, with a focus on history undergraduates, and aims to provide historians with a detailed picture that can support advocacy for the subject.

The publication is timely. Right now, arts and humanities staff at Bishop Grosseteste, De Montford, Dundee, Huddersfield, Roehampton, Sheffield Hallam, and Wolverhampton are under threat of redundancies. There have already been programme closures and/or staff cuts in history at Sunderland, Kingston, London South Bank, and Goldsmiths, and no doubt new announcements at other universities with follow in coming months.

Trends in History provides historians with clear and accessible evidence to back up existing assumptions. This includes how history provision is highly concentrated in the largest institutions. Almost half of all history students (by full-time equivalent, FTE) are taught in the top quintile (by market share) of institutions that offer history. This share has grown gradually since the lifting of the student numbers cap in 2015/16 and seems set to increase.

The report also illustrates the growth and contraction of history enrolments across institutions over a five-year period. This reveals two key findings. First, that there is a strong positive correlation between the change in an institution’s history FTE numbers and the change in its overall FTE numbers. Second, that decisions to reduce staff numbers or close history programmes appear to be ideological. Roehampton proves instructive here. According to HESA data, between 2014/15 and 2019/20 history enrolments increased from 120 to 255 FTE. Yet as of May 2022, all history staff are at risk of redundancy as part of a university-wide restructure.

These findings are significant. They suggest that historians have limited power to prevent or reverse declines in recruitment to their department – and thus top-down threats – independent of the wider collective of their colleagues. A key element to fighting off threats may therefore lie in building cross-disciplinary (or, in resourcing terms, cross-departmental) relationships of collaboration and solidarity.

In addition to analysis of enrolments data, the report synthesises evidence on ‘employability’ and post-degree incomes. The notion that history (and arts and humanities subjects more generally) does not have ‘value’ in this way, whilst STEM subjects do, is shown to be wholly and demonstrably false. Analysis of the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data set, for example, suggests that women history graduates can expect lifetime earnings very similar to that of computing graduates and, for men, to physics graduates.

The report ends with reflections from historians from a small cross-section of institutions. While a small sample means we must be wary of generalising, these suggest patterns that align with the quantitative data analysed in the report. This includes the highly concentrated nature of history provision, with effects being felt most keenly in terms of workload. It also includes the ways that employability and the skills agenda may, in time, reinforce perceived differences between more prestigious and less prestigious institutions, as seen in econometric models of lifetime earnings. While employability is increasingly important across the sector, it is in post-92s that we have seen the most sustained and innovative efforts to embed employability as integral parts of curricula.

Overall, the report raises important questions about the effects of the increasingly binary system of higher education, in which there are ‘over-performing’ and ‘under-performing’ institutions for the arts and humanities. This includes threats to unfunded research time in pre-92 non-Russell Group universities (as discussed in this recent History UK blog post), as well as the implications of discourses around ‘employability’. Staff in institutions under threat of cuts and contractions are already contending with demands to refocus programmes on ‘vocational’ history and the ‘applied humanities’, and the implications of this for staff and students, or for the discipline, have yet to be realised.

Most importantly, Trends in History reinforces the need for sector-wide discussions on history provision, not only in terms of enrolments and outcomes, but of workloads and curricula. What do sustainable history programmes look like, and how might these best meet the needs not only of future students, but of staff and wider communities? And how might historians build strategic alliances across the university (including within university governance) to ensure that the solidarity is there when plans to cut or restructure are raised.

We need to move beyond issuing statements and holding discussions. Trends in History provides a key step in building an evidence base to support action.

Over the next few weeks, we will post a series of blog posts discussing key themes and issues arising from the report. If you would like to contribute a blog post (perhaps providing a view from your institution) please get in touch with us via historyuk2020@gmail.com.

In the meantime, you can read the full report here.

The executive summary is available here.