This is the fourth item in a series of blog posts that tie in with History UK’s recent report on Trends in History UK Higher Education.
One of the themes of History UK’s recent Trends in History report that I was most struck by was the repeated emphasis on the relationship between history departments and the wider institution: there is a close correlation between the fortunes of history departments – at least in terms of recruitment – and those of the institutions in which they operate. It’s somehow simultaneously empowering and a bit depressing to realise that there may not be much that individual historians – or departments, even – can do to arrest declining recruitment if the overall university is on a downward trajectory.
Beyond the specific point about recruitment, the report referred on several other occasions to the relationship between historians and their institutions that I’d like to explore in this post. My own institution is currently reorganising the schools within the College of Arts, resulting in a realignment that puts history back into a school that looks strikingly similar to the one I joined in 2013! (Then it was a School of Humanities; from September 2022 it’ll be a School of Humanities and Heritage; in between it was a School of History and Heritage…) At a recent History UK steering committee meeting colleagues shared stories of similar reorganisations affecting history across the sector, which frequently seem to be designed to offset recruitment shortfalls, sometimes in history but often in other subjects.
Such reconfigurations were described with varying levels of enthusiasm; some seem to have resulted in very positive developments in terms of teaching, research, and collaboration. But my point is not whether they worked or not – such developments further illustrate the how the position of history within many institutions is determined by broader organisational and managerial processes. It is therefore imperative, as the report points out, that historians take action to underline the value of their subject to the institution as a whole. This is perhaps especially the case in institutions where recruitment metrics don’t look particularly healthy.
In what follows, I develop some of the ideas outlined in the report, raising some caveats where applicable. Many historians and history departments are already engaging in the sorts of activities that I outline below, so this draws on what I have learnt from reading the various drafts of the report and engaging with colleagues in History UK over the past few years.
At a strategic level, historians at some institutions have had success in embedding themselves at an institutional level through taking on leadership roles, doing committee work and engaging in academic citizenship beyond their own area. This perhaps puts them in a position to influence senior managers or, at the very least, to discern when changes might be on the horizon. In the future, it might also enable them to loudly and repeatedly make the point to those that matter than the rhetoric around ‘dead end degrees’ and the negative employment prospects of history graduates are false, as the report demonstrated so clearly.
The report also makes the point that figures for history student recruitment probably incorporate large numbers of students who are not studying history at degree level. Obviously, joint honours degrees do form part of these calculations, but it is likely that many students who are taking non-history degrees do not find full (or consistent) representation in metrics because institutions have different methods of recording and returning student number data. It is therefore worth tracking ‘service teaching’ – i.e. number of students taught from non-history degrees or when historians teaching for programmes beyond their ‘home’ discipline. All of this will give a better sense (and, importantly, a number!) of the actual contribution of history to the overall institution.
A word of pessimism – as we have seen over the past few years, even when historians occupy very senior leadership positions (even at VC-level), this has not prevented those same universities closing down or cutting history provision. Nonetheless, taking an institutional view may provide some history departments with the tools to see what might be coming over the horizon earlier than might otherwise be the case. It might also increase their chances of being listened to, having demonstrated their value to the institution as a whole and being able to ‘make their case’. By taking action to better understand how our institutions work (even if it seems to many of us that they don’t work very well), who makes decisions about the allocation of resources, and under what conditions changes are likely to occur, we may be able to place ourselves slightly better when it comes to steering a course through plans to reorganise or ‘rebalance’ subjects.
Prof Jamie Wood, Professor of History and Education at the University of Lincoln, drawing on Trends in History in UK Higher Education. Read the full report here.