Focus on history: On the agenda: staff sentiment, struggling students, employability and national Identity

July 11, 2003

Staff morale

Hannah Barker, senior lecturer in modern history at the University of Manchester

"I think people feel beleaguered. They feel they have fewer resources with more students. The department at Manchester is not bad - many colleagues in poorer places and certainly in new universities say that things are pretty desperate."

Gerald Hawting, head of history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London

"The whole field is in a rather bad state. Universities are cutting back on the numbers of academics in history generally. We got a 5* rating in the past two research assessment exercises, we've been upgraded to a 6, and our reward is a cut from 20 staff to 17."

Natalie Zacek, lecturer in history at the University of Manchester

"It is exhilarating to see the interest in history among undergraduates. It may be because of the interest sparked by the likes of David Starkey and Tristram Hunt or it may be a result of A levels.

"But history, as a labour-intensive form of teaching, is going to have to think carefully about how it responds to mass education. The small tutorials and personal work on essays will no longer be practical.

Unlike the hard sciences, we are not concerned with shortage of material resources or space, but rather staff time."

Government support for history

Kent Deng, lecturer in history at London School of Economics

"History makes a nation clever. The state should make the necessary investment in this field to keep Britain clever.

"Academic morale is still high. But employee morale is low. The reason is relative poverty: our counterparts in the US can earn three times as much in real terms. Low wages will wreck British higher education."

Jill Stephenson, lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh

"Does Charles Clarke have a vision of higher education beyond wanting it to make students employable? It seems to me that his understanding of non-vocational subjects is deficient. He regards them, as Dearing did, as not equipping students for employment. As far as history is concerned, a great many employers would beg to differ. Mr Clarke appears to believe, as Lady Thatcher did, that studying history is a matter of learning a lot of bunk about the past. He does not seem to realise that studying history, in common with all other disciplines that belong in a university, is an exercise in critical inquiry. The beauty of history is that there is so much of it that it is virtually impossible to run out of problems to solve."

The quality of students

Jinty Nelson, president of the Royal Historical Society and professor of medieval history at King's College London

"Even in a place such as King's College we have some first-year history students who have difficulty reading and writing. They can't begin to cope with the bibliographies we expect for a weekly essay."

Anne Goldgar, lecturer in early modern European history at King's

"As we increase numbers, the quality of students goes down. On the whole our students are wonderful, but the quality tails off. They don't know as much when they arrive, they haven't read as much and they find the transition to university more difficult than students used to.

"They often study the same things at GCSE and A level. It's great to teach the 1930s as people need to know about that, but it shouldn't stop there. Luckily, our students are interested in learning about other periods. As soon as they arrive, they want to rush off and do ancient or medieval history. Our early modern Europe paper is the second most popular."

Eric Evans, professor of social history at the University of Lancaster

"You need to do more repair work in terms of writing. In the first year, students don't know what a sentence is.

"Plagiarism is a growing problem with the internet. But it is not straightforward. The less able and less confident often copy notes out of books and reproduce them without realising that it's not the way to write essays."

The long view

Anne Lindsay, senior policy adviser for the learning and skills group at the Confederation of British Industry

"History graduates are a popular choice if they have the right skills - for example good analytical skills or the ability to argue well. It is one of those disciplines where there is a lot of value for the student but they need to go a bit further in demonstrating that to employers."

Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage

"People's knowledge of history primarily comes from books, TV and the historic environment - our physical heritage. Sadly, less and less comes from formal education. History defines and shapes our national identity - our sense of who we are. Understanding it is vital for everyone."

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