History and higher education policy reform: what happens next

Andrew McGettigan

Optimism is in short supply amongst academics, so I apologise in advance for this blog, but recent, overdue announcements mean that the sector is going to endure a period of austerity now that the government has decided that it is only willing to bear a much lower cost for English undergraduate provision: the implications of what has been set out go beyond teaching to challenge the conditions for research in subjects like History.


Reforms to student loans aim to steer students towards professional & vocational subjects

Photo by Shreyas Sane on Unsplash

At the end of February, we received the long-awaited official response to the Augar review (published in May 2019, but commissioned by Theresa May in early 2018).

With an end to one form of uncertainty, sector management and policy bodies expressed unseemly relief as it became clear that the maximum undergraduate tuition fee chargeable to home students would be frozen at £9250 for another two years. Augar’s recommendation of a reduction in the basic per student “unit of resource” (fees plus teaching grants) had overshadowed the last 12 months; rumours suggested that it was receiving serious consideration; instead, the Department for Education and Treasury will simply allow inflation to erode the value of its undergraduate financing in the short-term — with no promises for the future.

You would have difficulty finding any acknowledgment from those same sector representatives about the trade-off, since it falls not on cash flowing into their institutions, but comes from the pockets of future university leavers and existing borrowers. For those starting in 2023/24, the repayment period on loans will be extended to 40 years before write-off and the repayment threshold will be lowered to £25,000 before increasing in line with inflation.[1]

This has the effect of vastly increasing the amounts repaid by lower and middle earners. You will have heard much more about the decision to drop the interest rate, but this move will only benefit higher earners: those who would currently repay more than they borrowed.

The government had the gall to suggest that this new settlement was “fairer” and even “just”, but the head of the normally sober Institute for Fiscal Studies labelled this “truly horrible” in its distributive effects. Its modelling suggested that: “Low-to-middle-earning graduates could be made about £20,000 worse off over their lifetime by the changes; the highest earners could benefit by £25,000.” See: https://ifs.org.uk/publications/15955.

The loan scheme aside, the deal gets worse once you realise that there was no announcement about reform of student maintenance support.[2]

These reforms are cynical, but they are also consistent with a desire to “nudge” applicants away from the default of a three-year, full-time degree in subjects such as History and to encourage students to take shorter technical, vocational and professional courses.[3] With the reduction in interest rate and the extension of the repayment period, it will make more sense to reduce one’s exposure to debt and, as a result, one- or two-year courses gain in attractiveness. Income contingent repayment terms originally meant that the headline tuition fee could not function as a “price”, since it did not signal clearly to those who took out loans what they were likely to pay. That is not now the case.

These reforms will begin to change decisions about university beyond the changing popularity and experience of A-level History. In the very short run, there will probably be a late rush to apply this year or to cancel deferrals as for the majority it will be much more expensive to start in 2023/24 than to do so sooner. But after that, I would expect choices to shift the other way.


How far will History’s fees go as inflation bites?

There is a further dimension to consider. As the maximum undergraduate tuition fee continues to be frozen at £9250 pa, university management is likely to become less keen on “classroom” subjects, such as History: so-called Band D subjects which receive no additional teaching grant to supplement the undergraduate fee.

As a subject, History’s undergraduate funding benefited in 2012 as the new £9000 fee represented a large increase on the circa £6000 received from fee plus grant in the preceding years. But since then, there has only been one increase, to £9250. Vice-chancellors are now limiting their complaints to sniping over the likely real terms value of the 2023/24 fee compared to 2011/12 (contrast their silence over what graduates will have to repay in future).

Early in the last decade, from the perspective of university management, it made financial sense to recruit increasing numbers to business, law, arts, humanities and social science subjects (Band D): there was a clear surplus to be made, which could then be used to cross-subsidise other activities like higher-cost subjects, capital development and staff research time. As the value of the fee continues to decrease in real terms, that surplus vanishes and the priorities of university top brass – capital development and STEM – mean that unfunded research time becomes a general problem.

That is, in a hypothetical History department where recruitment had stood up over the last decade, inflation would mean that original surpluses gradually reduce to break-even and could, over time, come to be seen as loss-making — depending on how central costs are distributed (think increasing energy prices). At institutions where recruitment is not so strong, the question will be whether fees cover departmental costs and, in particular, the component of staff salaries devoted to research.


Further Casualisation? Further Internationalisation?

In this financial context, the viability of a History department’s research culture will now largely depend on the institutional ability to ramp up casualisation further or increase the recruitment of international students (for whom there is no limit on what universities can charge). In practice, there is limited scope for increased international recruitment in some subjects, which will, in any case, be monopolised by the “big beasts” in the sector. In a report this month, the National Audit Office pointed out that “many providers’ medium- and long-term financial forecasts depend on assumed continued growth in overseas as well as domestic student numbers”.

The risks, moral as well as geopolitical, of building a “business model” of charging as much as you can from as many students as you can recruit should not need stressing. But without international students, there is a difficult question about how “unfunded” research can get done.[4]

The sector is financially uneven. The median income for established universities is between £200-£250million per year, but some receive less than half that and others are more than four times larger. Oxford and Cambridge bring in over £2billionsome years. The bigger, more prestigious institutions will increasingly be able to dominate the market for international students and reinforce their historic advantages. Along with these size disparities, there are significant variations in financial performance that are masked by aggregate sectoral figures: worrying numbers of institutions are running persistent and sizeable deficits.

As management come to view unfunded research time as a drain on limited resources, a new binary system will likely emerge, one which sees fewer institutions operating with sustainable research in the arts, humanities and social sciences than was even the case before 1992.

While the squeeze on unfunded research will be apparent across the board, pre-92 universities offer contracts with higher amounts of time for research.[5] Some of these have not fared well in the last five years since undergraduate student number controls were fully removed. High-profile cases include SOAS and Goldsmiths. Wholesale review of research time would potentially be as destructive for them as the current pension dispute. As a result, some institutions may become more prone to consider closing departments seen to be underperforming financially, rather than recognise that they have become teaching-led institutions.[6]

Things could move very quickly in the next few years, and it is important that representative bodies like History UK establish a picture of what is going on in relation to research time, contracts and student and staff recruitment across the sector. While the government talks up efficiencies and market competition, it is important to establish what is being sacrificed to that end. Whatever form the next round of struggle takes, it needs information as ammunition.

Andrew McGettigan writes on higher education financing and university finances. His book The Great University Gamble: money, markets & the future of higher education (Pluto) appeared in 2013. He is an expert on student loan accounting and university business models. Although he mainly works on private commissioned reports, his writing has appeared in London Review of Books, the Guardian, and the Observer as well as the industry press.



1. Those who started after 2012 have “Plan 2” loans, the current repayment threshold is to be frozen at £27,295 pa for two years before increasing in line with RPI. Borrowers are required to repay 9 per cent of earnings over that threshold. Outstanding balances are written off 30 years after leaving university. Interest accrues at between RPI and RPI plus 3 percentage points depending on earnings. See: https://www.gov.uk/repaying-your-student-loan/what-you-pay.

2. Once again, the family income threshold determining access to additional maintenance support has been frozen. It has been stuck at £25,000 since 2008! In a separate earlier analysis, IFS pointed out: “had it risen with average earnings, it would now be around £34,000.” (https://ifs.org.uk/publications/15940). And that would roughly double the number of students in receipt of extra maintenance cash today. Coupled with a below inflation increase in loan entitlements (2.3%!) and ballooning rents, it means that current students are being treated very poorly. In effect, the result is more students trying to earn in term-time, studying less and relying more on commercial lending and, according to the IFS, facing “genuine hardship”. A whole chapter of the Augar report has been ignored. Instead of using higher loan repayments to increase support for those studying today, potential future funds have been sucked out of the sector. At the end of March, with the Chancellor’s Spring Statement it became clear how the future savings on higher education — by making former students pay more back — had enabled many of the measures that were announced.

3. The government is preparing to transform the financing further in 2025, when the Lifelong Learning Entitlement is meant to be launched. At this point, loans will be available for individual modules. The Office for Students is backing a fully fledged pilot in 2022 with some individual modules now designated for student support at 22 institutions. None is a History course. See: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/skills-and-employment/higher-education-short-course-trial/.

4. The Office for Students even recently concluded that the improved ability of London institutions to “recruit globally” represented such a significant benefit that it was no longer appropriate to recognise the “extra costs of operating in London” via the London Weighting grant payment for home students. As a result, the latter — in 2020/21 worth an extra £240 per History student per year in inner London (£150 in outer) — was abolished with a stroke of a pen at the start of 2021/22, saving the OfS £64million per year, which was then funnelled into subjects considered “strategically important”. See: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/consultation-on-recurrent-funding-for-2021-22/.

5. The national contract originally negotiated at post-92 universities seems to present research time as “personal development” and suggests it is done outside of the maximum 38 weeks of term-time and roughly 9 weeks of leave. (See: https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/1970/Post-92-national-contract). The latter is not agreed at all post-92s and will also come under increasing strain, with Falmouth and Staffordshire even proposing to employ all new staff at subsidiaries to avoid local government pension schemes.

6. The government’s preference for “strategically important” subjects has been laid down in recent years; there is no guarantee that this won’t also play out in funding decisions resulting from the latest REF.

History UK statement of solidarity with historians facing cuts at Aston University and London South Bank University

History UK is dismayed at yet further threats to History in higher education, as seen in news of course closures at Aston University and London South Bank University (LSBU). We stand in solidarity with colleagues at these institutions, alongside others whose jobs are at risk across the sector.

First, we would like to recognise the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty felt by so many historians working in higher education. There is never a good time to learn about cuts, but the timing of announcements at Aston and LSBU, coming on the eve of the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, when access to mental health support was limited, raises questions about these universities’ duty of care for their staff and students.

Second, we are concerned by the apparent lack of consultation over plans to cut History provision in these institutions. Public statements outlining the reasons for such changes having not been forthcoming, making it difficult for colleagues, union representatives, and organisations such as History UK to respond. The implication that cuts to History at Aston is a result of it not being ‘identifiable with Aston’s image as a technical university with a focus on employability’ is particularly concerning, not least because such generalisations are not supported by evidence. History graduates are just as employable as those in STEM, yet also represent confident, well-rounded, flexible, and thinking individuals.

Third, we urge individuals and organisations to continue to make the case for the value of our subject—and related humanities disciplines—in response to such cuts. In addition to the need to shift false perceptions about the value of our degrees, and the prospects of our students, we need to continue to stress the importance of humanities subjects in universities that take widening participation seriously, and which have often been at the forefront of initiatives to create inclusive and dynamic curricula.

If you have ideas about how History UK and other subject organisations can respond to cuts such as these, please get in touch. We are on Twitter (@history_uk) and our DMs are open.

History UK signs A New Deal for UK Higher Education letter to ministers for education

Along with 47 other subject associations, History UK has just signed a letter to ministers with responsibility for higher education at Westminster and the devolved governments. It calls for a ‘new deal’ for higher education across the nations of the UK. You can read the full text of the letter below. Please share more widely on social media. A pdf of the full letter can be downloaded here.
Dear Ministers,

We are writing to you as officers of 48 professional associations representing diverse research fields to express our profound concern about the future of higher education in the UK. COVID-19 has simultaneously highlighted the huge importance of university research to tackling the virus and its social and economic implications as well as the unsustainability of the current funding model for tertiary education.

Higher education makes a fundamentally significant contribution to society. It expands our knowledge and understanding of the world through an array of research discoveries, improves the life chances of individuals by enhancing social mobility and opportunities, advances the economy by carrying out innovative research, and provides each new generation with cultural knowledge as well as cutting edge skills and expertise. Yet, currently, UK public spending on tertiary education amounts to only a quarter of university budgets, which is not only the lowest among OECD countries, but comprises considerably less than half of the average spending among the OECD’s other 34 countries. It is therefore not surprising that nearly 25 percent of all UK universities were in deficit even before the pandemic and that now, due to a dramatic drop in projected income, almost all higher education institutions in the country will face huge obstacles to carry out their mission and remain internationally competitive without government support.

A vibrant and robust higher education system is absolutely vital for the UK’s future. We believe that the current government funding model for higher education is inadequate for this task and we therefore call upon you to use the current crisis as an opportunity to create a new deal for higher education. Rather than providing a one-time bailout, it is paramount that the UK and devolved governments substantially increases public spending on tertiary education in line with the OECD average in order to ensure that our tertiary institutions remain at the forefront of global research, education and innovation.

Yours sincerely,

African Studies Association of the United Kingdom – Professor Ambreena Manji

Architectural Humanities Research Association — Professor Jonathan Hale

Arts and Humanities Alliance — Professor Susan Bruce

Association for Art History — Professor Frances Fowle

Association for German Studies — Professor Margaret Littler

Association for Welsh Writing in English — Professors Kirsti Bohata and Matthew Jarvis

Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, UK and Ireland — Dr John Miller

Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland — Professor Claire Taylor

Association of Programmes in Translation and Interpreting Studies — Dr JC Penet and Dr Olga Castro

Association for Publishing Education — Professor Claire Squires

Association of University Professors and Heads of French — Professor Marion Schmid

British Association for American Studies — Dr Cara Rodway

British Association for Cognitive Neuroscience — Professor Jamie Ward

British Association for Slavonic & East European Studies — Dr Matthias Neumann

British Association for South Asian Studies — Professor Patricia Jeffery

British Association for Study of Religions – Professor Bettina Schmidt

British Association for Victorian Studies — Professor Dinah Birch CBE

British Association of Academic Phoneticians – Professor Jane Stuart-Smith

British Association of Critical Legal Scholars — Professor Adam Gearey

British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies — Dr James Leggott

British Comparative Literature Association – Professor Susan Bassnett

British International Studies Association — Professor Mark Webber

British Philosophical Association — Professor Fiona Macpherson, FRSE, MAE

British Society for Middle Eastern Studies — Professor Haleh Afshar

British Society for the History of Science — Drr Tim Boon

British Sociological Association — Professor Susan Halford

British Universities Industrial Relations Association —  Professor Tony Dobbins

Council of University Classical Departments — Professor Helen Lovatt

Economic History Society – Professor Catherine Schenk

English Association — Dr Rebecca Fisher

Feminist Studies Association — Dr Laura Clancy and Dr Sara De Benedictis,

History UK — Dr Lucinda Matthews-Jones, Dr Yolana Pringle and Dr Jamie Wood

Linguistics Association of Great Britain — Professor Caroline Heycock

Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association — Professor Anita Biressi

Modern Humanities Research Association – Dr Barbara Burns

Newcomen Society – Dr Jonathan Aylen

Oral History Society – Professor John Gabriel

Royal Musical Association – Professor Simon McVeigh

Royal Society of Literature — Professor Marina Warner, DBE, CBE, FBA

Socio-Legal Studies Association — Professor Rosie Harding

Society for French Studies — Professor Judith Still

Society for Latin American Studies — Professor Patience Schell

Society for Old Testament Study — Dr Walter Houston

Society for Renaissance Studies — Professor Richard Wistreich

Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry – Professor Frank James

Standing Conference of University Drama Departments – Professor Kate Newey

Theatre & Performance Research Association – Professor Roberta Mock

University Council of Modern Languages — Professor Claire Gorrara

Women in German Studies — Professor Ingrid Sharp

History UK’s Pandemic Pedagogy initiative – starts today!

Over the past few weeks members of the HUK Steering Committee, coordinated by Prof. Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway) have been putting together a project to support historians as we move out of the ‘emergency’ phase of online teaching and start planning for the next semester/ term. Following our Steering Committee meeting in early June, we ran a survey of members’ views. This has helped us form a working group to generate some useful resources and to run (online) events. We are keen to reflect on the ‘emergency’ phase of teaching and learning and to share best practice through collaborative problem-solving.

To that end, we’ve divided our ‘Pandemic Pedagogy’ activities into two broad strands:

  • Lucinda Matthews-Jones (LJMU), Yolana Pringle (Roehampton) and Manuela Williams (Sitrling) are developing the strand on inclusivity and community-building.
  • Kristen Brill (Keele), Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway) and Jamie Wood (Lincoln)are working on our second strand on pedagogy and online tools.

The inclusivity strand will kick off with the first of a series of Twitter chats today (Weds 3rd June) at 11am. Here’s the poster:

Poster for June History UK twitter chat number 1

We hope that you’ll be able to join us.

Alongside this, the pedagogy and technology group aims to produce some pages for the History UK website over the next few weeks, each of which will involve a short summary of the results of our information-gathering on three topics:

  • An overview of tools for online teaching – an annotated list introducing various digital tools people may have heard of but not used.
  • An introduction to various ways of staging digital small-group interactions that move replication of face-to-face teaching (e.g. lectures or seminars).
  • A page focussing specifically on tools and strategies for collaborative close ‘reading’ (including images and other media) and annotation of ‘texts’.

Our key aim here is to produce short, user-friendly and practical resources (i.e. case studies rather than research papers or theoretical works).

To draw on the knowledge that’s already out there to inform this initiative, we are conducting a survey of historians in HE. Please follow this link to complete it:

We will be sharing the results of our work as soon as possible via the HUK website and/or Twitter account.

Finally, if any historians are interested in joining our group to help out with this initiative, then please do get in touch with any of us directly.


Kristen Brill (Keele)

Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway – @kateantiquity)

Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores – @luciejones)

Yolana Pringle (Roehampton – @y_pringle)

Manuela Williams (Strathclyde – @ManuelaAWill)

Jamie Wood (Lincoln – @woodjamie99)



History UK statement on the closure of History at the University of Sunderland

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)