Focus on history: What future for study of past?

July 11, 2003

In the first in a series on the state of academic study, Anna Fazackerley asks how the government white paper has affected history

The government's preoccupation with science is jeopardising the study of history, universities said this week.

There is anxiety in higher education that the government's decision to concentrate research funding in top-rated departments is driven by big science, where a concentration of resources is crucial to excellence. This is damaging to subjects such as history, where good research is spread more widely.

Eric Evans, the co-convener of the History at the Universities Defence Group, told The THES: "Most people have had considerable problems with the white paper as it seems to be driven by a science model of research, based on large teams and megabucks."

Jonathan Barry, head of the School of History at Exeter University, said:

"I don't think history is one of those disciplines where it is better to have a small number of people doing outstanding work than a large number doing good work. It is not a discipline where a few giants stride the sector."

While the subject remains healthy in mainstream areas such as 20th-century, early modern British and American history, other specialisms are facing cuts as universities strive to balance their books. The study of the histories of regions such as China, Japan, the Middle East and Latin America have been hit particularly hard.

Durham University has said that it will no longer take undergraduates on its East Asian studies course, which includes history. And London University's School of Oriental and African Studies has cut specialist staff in Chinese, Japanese and African history.

Professor Evans said: "When universities are trying to save money, what is worrying is that the same targets are being picked out in departments across the land."

Many hoped that the promotion of the Arts and Humanities Research Board to research council status would mean a boost for history in funding and profile.

History is one of the AHRB's two biggest areas, and chief executive Geoffrey Crossick is a history graduate. Professor Crossick is confident that the new council will bring history into the heavyweight research division, until now dominated by science subjects.

He said: "The challenge for history is to show we can link to other disciplines but, more important, that the research we do brings dimensions of understanding that no other discipline can bring."

But there are fears about the outcome of the research assessment exercise review.

Jinty Nelson, Royal Historical Society president, said: "History was one of the success stories of the RAE, so there is some anxiety about the changes that have been tailored to the hard sciences. The emphasis is no longer so much on individuals as on teams."

Both the society and the AHRB are concerned about the apparent trend towards using citations to measure researcher performance.

Professor Crossick argues that citation is a measure of research impact in the sciences because researchers generally do not cite work they disagree with. But in subjects such as history, it becomes confused because engaging with research you oppose is central to intellectual discourse.

Bureaucracy aside, most academics agree that this is an exciting time to be involved in history. Clear trends are emerging in favour of the study of newer subjects, including environmental history, the history of culture and identity, and the history of science and technology.

Student numbers are on the up, with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service registering 7,638 undergraduate history applications for 2003, compared with 6,606 in 1997. This covers history by period, topic and geography.

But an expansion in student numbers in many of the old universities is concurrent with recruitment shortages in some of the newer history departments.

Universities are confident that their history graduates are employable.

Stuart Jones, chair of history at the University of Manchester, said that while companies were suspicious of newer subjects, it was thought history graduates were solidly grounded and able to make judgements based on uncertainty.

"People working in the humanities in universities feel the (government's) emphasis on vocationally relevant skills leads to a distortion of the purpose of a university. As historians, we feel history is a subject that employers value in terms of transferable skills."

As it stands now - The state of play in the field

Course breakdown

  • 188 undergraduate courses listed by period (eg 20th century).
  • 83 undergraduate courses listed by topic (eg cultural history).
  • 16 undergraduate courses listed by geography (eg American history).

Source: Ucas

Research funding

  • £25.6 million for history in 2003-04.
  • £5.4 million for classics, ancient history, Byzantine and modern Greek studies in 2003-04.
  • £4.9 million for history of art, architecture and design in 2003-4.
  • Source: Higher Education Funding Council for England
  • AHRB funding for medieval and modern history 2002-03: £3.8m
  • AHRB funding for classics, ancient history and archaeology 2002-03: £3m

Source: Arts and Humanities Research Board (excludes interdisciplinary research)

  • Number of history teachers in UK universities, 2003: 2,894 Source: Institute of Historical Research

Did you know?

History is the second most popular subject studied at degree level by vice-chancellors.

Politicians with a history background include: Gordon Brown, David Sainsbury and John Prescott.

Source: research by Manchester Metropolitan University

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