We are, sadly, all too familiar with news of cuts within UK History departments. The Royal Historical Society meets regularly with historians facing course closures and redundancies. The Society also speaks out for individual departments and the sector as a whole.
What we learned last week from Oxford Brookes University goes far beyond the cases previously encountered. In terms of extent, rapidity and impact, the cuts and job losses proposed at Oxford Brookes are remarkably severe. History is not alone. Recent coverage has highlighted the university’s plan to close its Music programme—a decision which also affects cultural historians in that department. Cuts are similarly proposed for English, Film, Anthropology and Architecture.
For History the proposal is shocking. All six of the department’s professors are at risk of redundancy. Four will be required to leave either ‘voluntarily’ in January or through compulsory redundancy by Spring 2024. If carried through, this would reduce the number of front-line teaching staff to as low as eight FTE. This is a long way from the mid 2010s when Brookes History was a significant force of c. 30 historians with an average annual intake of more than 100 undergraduates across single and joint honours degrees.
The impact of these cuts will be considerable. First and foremost are those whose positions are now at risk. But the effects go much further. Redundancies, mid-way through the year, will severely deplete the department’s teaching capacity; they will damage students’ learning experience—most notably for those in their final year preparing dissertations; and will mean much heavier teaching loads for colleagues who remain.
Furthermore, cuts of this focus and severity look set to end a culture of historical research that’s previously thrived at Oxford Brookes. This is a research group widely admired and respected across the profession, and one that has performed well in recent research assessments. What, we have to ask, has happened to the QR funding earned by Brookes historians if it has not gone to support these historians? How does the university intend to use this funding in future if the department is reduced to a much lower level of staffing?
It is especially alarming that erosion of research culture appears to be the university’s intention. What makes the Oxford Brookes proposal so concerning is not the common pretence that all will be well despite fewer resources; rather that the purpose of Brookes History and humanities is changing fundamentally to the detriment of research. To jettison a respected research culture will, we fear, damage the wider university through loss of reputation, research income and academic partnerships.
Why is this happening? Colleagues highlight recent fluctuations in student numbers in History. As the Society reported in June 2023, lifting the cap on student numbers in 2015 has created an environment of feast and famine, in which departments are either overwhelmed by or deprived of students. Neither outcome can support long-term planning or the highest-quality teaching and research. Even so, the situation at Brookes has recently stabilised with admissions for History on the rise.
The extent and rapidity of cuts at Oxford Brookes clearly go far beyond individual departments. They speak to wider difficulties faced by the university. What is unacceptable is those now paying the price are skilled, successful historians and their students—alongside those in other humanities departments facing cuts or closure.
The Society is communicating these concerns to the Vice Chancellor and Governors of Oxford Brookes in the strongest terms. The Society’s experience is that departments of fewer than 10 FTE struggle and seldom prove viable. This cannot be allowed to happen at Oxford Brookes either by design or neglect. We urge the university to pause its current proposals and timetable to allow for a more considered review of History’s future at Brookes—for the benefits of students, all staff, and the discipline.
The President, Officers and Councillors of the Royal Historical Society