News and Views

Assessment in history: reassessing the purpose and future of assessment in the study of history

A recent History UK event provided an opportunity to reassess the purpose and future of history assessments. It acknowledged the fundamental role that assessment plays in undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from transitions to employability to skills development to creativity and inclusivity. Cross-institutional conversations about assessment were invaluable. You can see the programme for the day here.

Next steps: we are continuing to collect and collate resources relating to history assessment that might be useful for colleagues in the sector when designing new forms of assessment or coordinating programme level assessment. If you would like to contribute a case study about a particular type of assessment, approaches to designing and integrating assessment types into degree programmes, structuring the assessment journey in UG programmes, or another aspect of history assessment in history then please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk) with a short outline and for further information of what is required. Also get in touch if you have any questions about the project.

Recordings from the live event:

2022 Academic Job Boot Camp

Academic Job Boot Camp – Wednesday 7th September 2022, online event.

History UK is pleased to be running the Academic Job Boot Camp again this year. All early career historians are encouraged to apply, with preference being given to those who have already completed or submitted their PhDs.

  • Are you thinking about applying for your first lectureship in history?
  • Submitting applications and never hearing back?
  • Wishing you could have a ‘test run’ for job applications and interviews?

The Academic Job Boot Camp is a free half-day event for early career historians, sponsored by History UK and supported by History Lab Plus. It will help you to structure your academic CV, hone your cover letter, rehearse your job presentation, and undergo a mock interview, as well as demystifying some of the processes around academic recruitment. The experience, feedback, and advice that you receive at the event is intended to improve your chances the next time you apply for an academic job.

How will the boot camp work?

This event simulates all stages of the job application process, up to and including being interviewed as a shortlisted candidate. You will be interviewed by experienced academics drawn from universities nationwide. You will also deliver a job presentation to other early career historians.

You will receive feedback on your academic CV and cover letter, interview, and presentation. You will also have the opportunity to observe how others approach the job application process, providing peer feedback and support. The event will end with a roundtable discussion, offering the chance to ask questions of academics who have been involved in university recruitment – as well as chatting and networking with others in similar positions to you.

As in 2021, this event will take place entirely online. However, many universities were already moving towards introducing online elements to the job application process before the pandemic, so experience with this kind of format is likely to be useful in the future.

You can read posts about the job boot camps from previous years hereherehere and here.

 

Outline Itinerary (all events to take place online, exact timings TBC):

1-1.15: Welcome.

An introduction to the event and History UK from Simon Peplow, Early Career Researcher representative for History UK.

1.15-3.45: Presentation or Job Interviews. 

During the afternoon you will be asked to participate in four activities:

  1. a 30-minute mock interview; you will be informed of the exact time of your interview on the day.
  2. observe a 30-minute mock interview; the time of this will also be made clear to you on the day.
  3. give a 5-minute presentation addressing the question ‘How does your research inform your teaching practices?’, followed by 3-4 minutes of questions; led by an experienced academic in front of other early career historians who will provide written feedback.
  4. observe presentations from other attendees, ask questions and provide written feedback.

3.45-4.00: Break.

(As an online event, the obligatory tea/coffee break will unfortunately have to be self-catered!)

4.00-5.00: Roundtable discussion and advice for navigating the academic job market.

 

This online event is free and sponsored by History UK and History Lab Plus.

To participate, you will need to apply for an imaginary lectureship in a real history programme. Please read the job advert for the Imaginary Lectureship in History here https://bit.ly/3d5WjYE, then submit a letter of application and academic CV to Simon Peplow (Simon.Peplow@warwick.ac.uk). Please also contact Simon if you have any questions about this event.

The deadline for applications is noon on Wednesday 24th August 2022.
The online event will take place on Wednesday 7th September 2022.

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.