This is the second item in a series of blog posts that tie in with History UK’s recent report on Trends in History UK Higher Education.
As a humanities subject, history is operating in a challenging higher education environment. Whereas there is broad public consensus on the value of STEM courses, policy announcements on ‘low value degrees’ seem to be directed at the arts and humanities, even if they may not say so directly. However, assumptions about the respective merits of different disciplines or areas of study are not backed up by the available evidence. For example, in 2020, a report from the British Academy highlighted the skills and prospects of graduates in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Moreover, with a specific focus on our own discipline, History UK’s recent report on Trends in History UK Higher Education collated helpful data on the employability of history graduates, which a separate blog post in this series will elaborate on.
It is not only the matter of graduate destinations that makes for a mixed picture: a similar observation applies to student recruitment. In the first blog post for our series, Elizabeth Tingle noted that data reveal a high level of concentration of history students at just 20 institutions. Collectively, these institutions have also increased their ‘market share’ since 2014/2015.
This development reflects a broader trend in student recruitment patterns: institutions within the Russell Group have been able to consolidate their position or expand their history provision, whereas at other universities, lower recruitment has been a subject of growing concern. The qualitative section of the History UK report showed how this development has created very different challenges and working realities for history staff. Whereas at some institutions, expansion has led to increased workloads, at other universities, there have been threats of course closures or management pressure to overhaul existing provision.
However, while the fortunes of history are varied, the picture is not universally gloomy and there are some aspects from the report that might tell a more positive story.
First of all, narratives of decline are unnecessary when we are dealing with only a modest reduction in history FTE numbers: a drop of 2% from 2014/2015 to 2019/2020. It is true that the relative share of history students (within the overall student population) has fallen, as student enrolments across all subjects have risen by 12% in the same period. Nonetheless, data suggest that student interest in history continues to be strong.
Second, history continues to be a standard component of the subject mix at multi-faculty institutions. During the 2019/2020 academic year, students were enrolled on history courses at 106 different institutions. This number does include some universities with very large cohorts: in 2019/2020, 7 institutions had an FTE history population of over 1,000 (Cambridge, Oxford, Exeter, Open University, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Glasgow). But what is equally striking is the number of institutions that are running smaller courses. If one looks at history enrolments in different brackets of hundreds (that is, 0–100 students, 100–200 students, 200–300 students, 300–400 students, etc.), the category with the largest number of institutions (25) is the 100–200 bracket, meaning that universities with an annual intake between around 30 and 70 students make up a nearly a quarter of institutions. In other words, small degree courses form a central part of the eco-system of history provision in the UK.
Third, there is less of a correlation between A-levels and university admissions than one might expect. In 2020 and 2021, the number of students taking history A-level was lower than in any of the previous years, in contrast to a growth of students taking A-levels as a whole. This is evidently a concerning matter – but the History UK report suggests that this development has not had a clear impact on university admissions. While nurturing student interest in history at school and college is evidently important, one should be wary of any predictions of how future recruitment may develop.
These observations do not diminish some of the wider concerns I noted at the outset of this blog post. After all, the recruitment patterns and enrolment numbers make for highly disparate experiences among both staff and students – which, in turn, raises challenges for solidarity within the sector. But as a forum for historians from different institutions, History UK is in a good position to facilitate our conversations and bolster our ties.
Daniel Laqua, Associate Professor of European History at Northumbria University, drawing on Trends in History in UK Higher Education. Read the full report here.