History in UK Higher Education: A Statement from the Royal Historical Society

13 June 2023

History in UK Higher Education is in a state of unprecedented turbulence and uncertainty.

This turmoil takes several forms. Most conspicuous are those departments facing cuts to courses, dismissal of staff, and closure of History degrees. Currently, the universities of Brighton, East Anglia and Kent are consulting historians about voluntary and compulsory redundancies. UEA’s History department is being reduced from 40 FTE in 2021 to fewer than 30. Kent has already lost 10 FTE historians since 2020: a figure that does not include its current round of compulsory redundancies. At Brighton, all historians are presently at risk of redundancy as the university seeks to cut its 54-strong School of Humanities and Social Sciences by 21 members of staff.  

Situations like this have become only too familiar. Since 2020, History departments or degree programmes have been lost at Sunderland, Kingston and London South Bank. Compulsory redundancy programmes at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Roehampton in 2022 proved hugely demoralising to all involved, and have impaired the teaching and research capacity of those who remain. Elsewhere, whilst compulsory redundancies have been avoided, historians have been exposed to continuous cycles of voluntary severance, with staff leaving either because the prospect of remaining in post is intolerable, or to save the employment of younger colleagues.

Regardless of how historians depart, the result is loss of capacity and an increase in responsibilities for those who remain. Cuts and closures reduce specialist knowledge, and breadth of programmes. They mean a reduction of the research capacity that underpins popular forms of historical engagement. And they negatively impact students. Whether it is overcrowding in highly recruiting departments or loss of provision for those studying at their local institution, the current regime diminishes the range and quality of history teaching across the UK.

We believe these problems to be more pervasive than is generally recognised. In private, the Royal Historical Society holds frequent meetings with historians concerned about impending change: from closure of degree programmes and cuts to courses (sometimes mid-degree); to an end to optionality and the loss of disciplinary identity with the creation of catch-all humanities departments. Since 2021, historians from eleven universities have worked with the Society, while threats to a further nine institutions have been noted.

The profile of ‘at risk’ departments is also changing. Many of the departments we now work with are in universities with long-standing History departments noted for their achievements in recent REF exercises, yet this provides no guarantee of security. Kent and East Anglia headed the REF2021 rankings for History, and both have recently experienced extensive restructure and cuts. If those experiencing cuts and closures include the highest scoring in the REF, what—ultimately—is the purpose of assessment for those on the ground?

None of these problems can be explained by a decline in student numbers or interest in History, which remain strong. Instead we must look to political decisions to explain this troubling situation. UK universities now operate in a market economy. Institutions are placed in direct competition, with income generation via intake the principal measure of success. The lifting of the student cap in 2015 has established an environment of ‘feast and famine’ across the sector.

Cuts and closures are the starkest manifestation of this environment. But marketisation also brings turbulence and uncertainty to historians in ‘winning’ institutions, required at short notice to deal with sharp, and unpredictable, spikes in student numbers. Across the sector, uncertainty is exhausting, all-consuming, and impedes long-term thinking, planning and the delivery of high-quality teaching.

In the coming months, the Royal Historical Society is undertaking a project to assess the full extent of the losses, risks and concerns that now characterise History in UK Higher Education. We also seek to better understand the personal, institutional and disciplinary impact of change on academic staff, researchers, students and community partners. As is clear, the aftershocks of upheaval are long-lasting and have negative effects on the life of a department well after a programme of change has officially ended.

Present-day commentaries regularly propose that History, and the wider humanities, are ‘in crisis’. We do not agree. History as a subject and pursuit remains in good health. But what does appear to be in crisis—now as never before—are the structures that enable and sustain History in UK Higher Education. The implications of this are real and serious, and they require attention.

If you are a historian working in a UK university and would like to bring, in confidence, points to our attention, please get in touch: president@royalhistsoc.org. 

The President, Officers and Council Members of the Royal Historical Society