History and the wider university

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 EducationRead the full report here.

Very qualified for the future: history graduates’ employability and earnings

This is the third item in a series of blog posts that tie in with History UK’s recent report on Trends in History UK Higher Education.

On Monday 27 June 2022, commenting on the suspension and potential closure of the English literature degree at Sheffield Hallam University, the then minister for higher and further education Michelle Donelan said that although the government recognised that arts and humanities degree could lead to positive student outcomes, ‘courses that do not lead students on to work or further study fail both the students who pour their time and effort in, and the taxpayer, who picks up a substantial portion of the cost’.

The narrative surrounding ‘value for money’ seems to be focussing on arts and humanities degrees. This is despite any substantial evidence that corroborates assumptions about the employability and earnings of humanities graduates. History UK’s Trends in History Provision in UK Higher Education report, released in June, presents data that challenge arguments that humanities, and in the specific case, history graduates are both less employable than their STEM peers and command lower graduate earnings. Using data from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) (The Impact of Undergraduate Degrees on Lifetime Earnings, 2020) and The British Academy (Qualified for the Future. Quantifying Demand for Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Skills,2020), the report positions the earnings of history graduates within the wider spectrum of arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) and STEM graduates’ earnings and outcomes; it concludes that history graduates enjoy lifetime earnings that are similar, and sometimes greater, than those of graduates of STEM subjects.

Any discussion about graduate employability, outcomes and earnings will inevitably examine the skills, knowledge and attributes acquired by university students. Two very important reports produced by the British Academy in the last five years have helped define and articulate the skills developed through the study of arts, humanities and social sciences subjects. They also explain their relevance in a rapidly changing world where the future shape of employment is difficult to predict. The Right Skills: Celebrating Skills in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (2017) outlines the AHSS graduate’s skills and knowledge that make a significant contribution to our society and economy: communication and collaboration; research and analysis; attitudes and behaviours, particularly independence and adaptability. The ability to adapt and apply this wider set of skill allows AHSS graduates to enter a broad range of professions, from financial services to education, research, media and creative industries, legal services, heritage and hospitality, civil service, private sectors and the third sector. The second British Academy report, Qualified for the Future, offers a detailed analysis of arts, humanities and social sciences graduates’ employability and outcomes and explains the reasons behind their wide-ranging employment opportunities: most jobs in the UK require university qualifications and not a degree in a specific discipline, with only 14% of employers stating that a specific degree subject is part of their selection criteria. Together, these reports suggest that in our graduate job market, the extensive and flexible set of skills, knowledge and competences developed in arts, humanities and social sciences are highly valued by employers.

If wider assumptions and assertions about the employability gap between STEM and AHSS graduates are unfounded, so are notions of an earnings gap. Indeed, headline figures are often skewed by high earning in two specific STEM professions, medicine and dentistry. Drawing on analyses by the IFS, Trends in Historydispels the myth of the ‘low value’ degree that has been central to the narrative surrounding the closure of history departments.  When looking at median pre-tax earnings in 2016 arranged by subject, gender and for individuals aged 30, 35 and 40, it becomes apparent that a 40-year old male history graduate will earn more than a male graduate in bioscience; and that by the age of 40, a female history graduate will earn more than a female architect.  An examination of net lifetime earnings also reveals that a female history graduate’s expected lifetime earnings are higher than those of a woman who graduated in an allied to medicine subject; for male history graduates, expected lifetime earnings seem higher than those of their physics peers.

All these figures rely on historical data and are predicated on a future that looks remarkably like the past. But recent seismic events like the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid pandemic have shown us how fragile and unpredictable the eco system of our job market is and how this can affect the choices made by graduates. Our assumptions concerning the reasons underpinning students’ choices of university degrees also need to be recast: an interesting survey conducted by ComRes in 2019 on the value of universities shows that 56% of the students surveyed chose to go to university because they had an interest in the subject and 48% because they enjoyed studying and learning, compared with 50% who said that they did it to build a career and 34% to achieve higher earnings. Interestingly, independence (59%), confidence and research (both at 58%) were the top three skills students felt they had developed at university.

These are some of the key skills and attributes that AHSS degrees enable students to develop and apply throughout their working lives. In a fast changing and uncertain world that requires high levels of independent thinking and flexibility. History graduates do have the right skills to succeed and meet present and future challenges, and to bring ‘value’ to our economy and society.

Dr Manuela Williams, Senior Teaching Fellow in History at the University of Strathclyde, drawing on Trends in History in UK Higher EducationRead the full report here.

The Fortunes of History in UK Higher Education

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.

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.

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.