RHS statement on the recent closure of UK History departments

24 May 2021

The Royal Historical Society (RHS) is deeply concerned to have heard of plans to end History teaching at four universities in the past year (the University of Sunderland, Aston University, London South Bank University and Kingston University). And whilst we are heartened to hear that History at Aston has now been reprieved, we are nonetheless concerned about the vulnerability of History degrees and departments in universities that serve predominantly first-generation students from low-participation backgrounds, and, in some cases, a high proportion of BAME students. Post-92 institutions have relatively large numbers of local and commuting students. It is well understood that many of those who commute to their local university do so precisely because they lack the means to study at a more distant institution.

The closure of History degrees in post-92 institutions, therefore, is not a simple matter of the consolidation of History provision. It also involves the removal of the opportunity to study History as a degree subject from students of a particular demographic. This is bad enough. However, when proposals go further – with historical teaching and training removed from related degree options, or when History staff are not offered meaningful redeployment – then the losses to student choice, and of specialist skills and livelihoods, are all the more serious and damaging.

Recent moves to close History courses and departments occur against a backdrop in which degrees are increasingly ranked and valued according to graduate earnings. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has recently hit out against ’dead-end courses’ that leave young people ‘with nothing but debt’. According to this logic, History, along with some other humanities subjects, stands accused of being bad value for money – not only for individual students, but also for the taxpayer who will end up footing the bill.

Yet the suggestion that a History degree is poor value or of limited use is simply not supported by the evidence. A History degree teaches all the skills that employers want, including independent, critical thinking and advanced writing, and this is reflected in the graduate employment market.

The British Academy’s recent report ‘Qualified for the Future’ (2020) shows that employment levels are identical for STEM and AHSS degrees. Studies by the Institute for Fiscal Studies conclude that, once controls have been made for socio-economic background, the differences between returns to specific subjects are not large. The 2020 Lifetime Earnings Study likewise reveals relatively few differences in earnings across subjects for either men or women (with History in the middle for both), and – once again – that an individual’s social background matters more than subject. Given the existence of robust evidence for the value of History degrees – both for their owners and for employers – it is far from clear why History is being included in arguments around value for money and graduate prospects.

More importantly, however, the RHS rejects the current terms of this debate, in which graduate salaries have been elevated as the most significant – or even the sole – measure of the value of a university education. It is our position that History serves a social good that goes beyond the monetary benefit to the individual. History provides the intellectual means for understanding the contemporary world. It is vital for the health and breadth of our civic culture, and our evolving sense of national self-understanding in all its nuance and complexity. Equally, the historians who teach these skills, across all kinds of university, are fully aware of the importance of relevance, innovation and public engagement in their work, and of the opportunity these present to better integrate universities within local communities.

High-quality research and teaching in History is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy and an informed, tolerant citizenry. We need this – just as we need the specialists to teach and promote historical awareness. The Royal Historical Society works for History and historians. We will therefore continue to advocate for History: at all kinds of institutions all across the country.

The President, Vice-Presidents, and Council of the Royal Historical Society