Student numbers in history in UK higher education: recent trends

History UK’s report Trends in History in UK Higher Education released last week, presents a sombre picture for historians. Despite overall growth in student numbers in UK universities, the number of history undergraduates has fallen by 17 per cent between 2014/15 and 2019/20, and the number of history postgraduates fell 16 per cent. While not all nations are equally affected – Scotland has fared better than England, Wales, and Northern Ireland – the general direction is downwards.

Behind this trend, two issues stand out. The first is the concentration of history students in a relatively small number of institutions. Almost half of all history students (by FTE) are taught in the top 20 per cent (by market share) of institutions that offer history (Figure 1). As there are just over 100 universities offering history, this top quintile contains 20 institutions. Their share of history FTEs has grown from 44 per cent to 47 per cent between 2014/15 and 2019/20. The second quintile of institutions captures more than a quarter of history FTEs. The result is that two-fifths of universities teach three-quarters of history FTEs in the UK.

Figure 1: History FTE enrolments, 2014/15–2019/20, by quintiles.

Source: Reproduced from Figure 3, Trends in History in UK Higher Education, p. 14. In this chart universities are ranked in order of number of history FTEs, for each year, and then grouped by quintile.

It is also evident that history departments in Russell Group universities have fared better than those in post-92 or non-Russell Group pre-92 institutions.

Figure 2. History enrolments (FTEs), 2014/15 vis-à-vis 2019/20 (by status).

Source: Reproduced from Figure 4, Trends in History in UK Higher Education, p. 15. This figure shows the ‘stability’ of institutions’ FTE enrolments.

It is not clear whether this increase is a result of the lifting of the student numbers cap in 2015/16. What is notable is that the top providers did not increase their market share more during this period, given the removal of this cap. However, it is likely that data for 2020/21 will show that this has changed, and it may be even more pronounced for 2021/22, with anecdotal evidence suggesting some universities significantly ‘over recruited’ during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A second important finding is that the health of an individual history department is closely related to that of its parent university. There is a strong positive correlation between the change in an institution’s history FTE numbers and change in its overall FTE numbers. History recruitment is dependent on overall institutional recruitment or standing. In other words, the better an institution has done overall in terms of recruitment, the better its history department is likely to have done (and vice versa). Again, we see the dominance of the Russell Group of universities, where enrolments, both total and for history, have almost all grown over this 5-year period.

Figure 3. Changes in FTE enrolments, 2014/15–2019/20, Total vis-à-vis history (by status).

Source: Reproduced from Figure 5, Trends in History in UK Higher Education, p. 16.

Recruitment growth as a driver of university strategy has wide implications for history departments across the sector. Undergraduate recruitment is an ever-present pressure, even when there is no immediate cause for concern. In one post-92 university studied, large investments in campus and estate development have been predicated on increased recruitment. The institutional approach to this has hinged on the creation of more courses to generate more income, while the need to generate increased undergraduate recruitment has produced a drive toward reorganisation as senior managers are appointed with change mandates. Although this may be intended to meet the needs of areas of the institution where there are genuine recruitment crises, knock-on effects for other areas are inevitable.

Staffing resources and subject specialisms have been under pressure from recruitment instability, above all outside of the Russell Group. At another post-92 university with stable recruitment, there is pressure on staffing structures, with the result that staff already on full workloads must cover for colleagues on sick leave or parental leave, for example. There has been a sense in this department that specialisms have been devalued by the fluid and interchangeable ways that staff are assigned to roles. The course structure norm is to offer only core modules, taken by all students. This has made it harder to diversify areas of and approaches to teaching. At one university in Scotland, there are workload pressures on staff because of high recent student recruitment levels and cuts to professional services. Success in admissions has led to the creation of new staff positions but not at a level commensurate with increasing student numbers. The disproportionality between student recruitment and staff workload has resulted in high instances of stress and burnout. Whilst history is not under any threat of direct cuts, these factors create what may be an unsustainable situation in the longer term.

In one Russell Group university in the north of England, undergraduate history enrolments had peaked in 2016/17 before returning to 2014/2015 levels, commensurate with university-wide enrolment. One consequence of this recruitment arc was the tendency for targets that had been presented as being exceptional during the period of over-recruitment to have been subsequently normalised, thus becoming harder to meet, and giving the false impression of worsening performance.


While recruitment of history students has fallen across the UK in recent years, the picture is uneven. Larger institutions have retained their market dominance by taking a high proportion of history students, and they have maintained or increased their absolute numbers. Over-recruitment by, in particular, some Russell Group universities looks likely to continue to present challenges. Anecdotal evidence leads us to speculate that enrolment data yet to be published are likely to show this problem as having worsened. The tragedy in this is, of course, that over-recruitment is neither to the benefit of the universities that miss out, nor to the benefit of those that over-recruit. Without changes in government policy such as a reintroduction of recruitment caps, it is hard to see a clear route to tackling this problem.

The data gathered in this report also suggests that academic historians in isolation from other colleagues have limited power to reverse a decline in history recruitment. Declining history recruitment appears to be symptomatic of overall falls in recruitment in host institutions. This is unlikely to be meaningfully influenced at the level of the individual department – and is not one that is peculiar to history. Some of 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, have yet to be fully realised. This indicates that a key element to combatting threats to history lies in building cross-disciplinary (or, in resourcing terms, cross-departmental) relationships of collaboration and solidarity.

Elizabeth Tingle, Professor of History, De Montfort University, drawing on Trends in History in UK Higher Education. Read the full report here.