History changes its course

August 11, 1995

History departments are abandoning broad-based degrees in favour of ones with more local, socio-cultural and modern courses, according to a survey of 53 universities.

The survey, published in History Today and History Review, concludes that smaller institutions and former polytechnics - with less money and fewer lecturers and students - "must choose their history carefully".

Luton offers courses such as "Looking for Work: living and working in Luton, 1918-1980". Nottingham Trent offers "new history" courses, including the socio-cultural "Domination and Denial: Gender issues in history c.800- 1685". The University of East London offers the history of feminism, imperialism and colonialism, and psychoanalysis.

The picture at the older, wealthier institutions is very different. According to Boyd Hilton, history faculty secretary at Cambridge University, "we aim to offer everything really". University College London endeavours to cover everything from early Near Eastern civilisations around 3,000bc to European history since 1945.

Medieval history is still taught at the more established universities whereas smaller, newer institutions are majoring on modern history. "medieval history, while not quite at the Dodo stage, is clearly struggling to keep up," says the survey.

The richer, research-oriented universities are also leading the backlash against modularisation. Oxford's regius professor John Elliott said: "No, Oxford isn't going down that road." Warwick's Bernard Capp said: "Modularisation, with its danger of a 'pick and mix' degree, can mean abandoning intellectual coherence in the name of consumer choice."

At Newcastle, the history department is seeking to "tame" modularisation, creating "long-thin modules". Survey authors Ian Fitzgerald and Adam Flint observe that "it looks as if the old system of fewer, longer courses is sneaking in again by the back door".

But while history courses are oversubscribed - Warwick received more than 1,200 applications for 88 places - they are not enhancing students' job prospects.

One academic said: "We sometimes feel we are preparing our students for meaningful unemployment."

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