Sussex cuts threaten a proud history of research-led excellence

Historians at home and abroad are fighting to stop the institution junking a tradition of intellectual integrity. Richard J. Evans says it must reconsider

June 10, 2010

Earlier this year, the University of Sussex announced sweeping plans for teaching and research in history. It would withdraw from research and research-led teaching in English social history pre-1700, in the economic and political history of continental Europe before 1900, and in social and political theory (though not Early Modern intellectual history). It would integrate history and the American history component of American studies to create what it claimed would be a vibrant new research and research-led teaching capability in American and British Atlantic history.

These proposals were not designed solely to save money. On the contrary, they aimed to cut back on history so as to free up resources to create a chair in digital humanities and courses in heritage management. The university did not do anything to back up its implicit belief that establishing these new areas would have students flocking to the university in unprecedented numbers. The idea of moving into digital humanities seemed to be a snap response to the Arts and Humanities Research Council's designation of this area as a focus for large-scale research grants; but research grants do not make a department.

As for cutting back, the university's arguments focused on what it suggested were low graduate student numbers in the areas slated for abolition, the absence of postdoctoral Fellows and a poor record in attracting major research grants. Anyone knows, however, that the numbers of postdoctoral Fellows and big study grants are relatively low in all areas of history because historians tend to be lone wolves, producing their work without the large teams that the sciences require. If these are the criteria of judgement for axing posts, this shows a poor understanding of the nature of historical research and of how it is funded.

No thought seems to have been given to restructuring graduate programmes in a way that deals with low recruitment and makes use of existing teaching staff. Most worryingly, there is a clear implication that while graduate teaching needs to be "research-led", undergraduate teaching does not.

History at Sussex has a long and proud tradition, not least in the area of pre-1900 European history, with figures such as Peter Burke and John Rohl on its staff in the past, but just as much in pre-1700 British history, which William Lamont taught at Sussex for many years while establishing himself as a leading specialist on the 17th-century Puritan Revolution. This tradition is now being put in jeopardy. How can you mount an intellectually respectable course in American or British Atlantic history without teaching British history in the age of the Pilgrim Fathers? How can you understand modern European history without learning anything about the French Revolution?

The university claims that it does not intend to axe any courses, but how can one respect a university that proposes to cover this or indeed any other area by "non-research-led" teaching? Prospective students thinking of studying history at Sussex would be well advised to think again.

When these proposals were first mooted, it quickly became known in the historical profession at large that three historians had been singled out for redundancy. One, James Thomson, took early retirement. Another, Naomi Tadmor, first pointed out to Sussex that contrary to its initial claims, she taught and researched British history post- and not pre-1700, then succeeded in getting a professorship at Lancaster University, where she starts in October. Sussex's loss is Lancaster's gain. This leaves one further member of staff facing redundancy.

These proposals have led to protests by many historians outside Sussex and by organisations including the Royal Historical Society and History UK (HE). They have pointed out that good history teaching at universities needs to be research-led, that student demand should not be the lead determinant of intellectual quality, and that the intellectual diversity and range of history needs to be protected in the interests of coherence in teaching and excellence in research. Sussex has dug its heels in and ignored the many representations it has received from the community of historians in the UK.

These issues affect the whole community of historians in UK higher education. Up to now, history at Sussex has been an outstanding success story. It was graded 15th in the country in the 2008 research assessment exercise. If a university as distinguished and research-orientated as Sussex can butcher its history department in this way, there is a clear danger that others will follow. History is a popular discipline, with some 35,000 undergraduates studying it in the UK. Of course, it must take its fair share of the burden of cuts and savings, but this must be done in a way that preserves the intellectual integrity and rationale of teaching and research.

Senior historians from elsewhere have already begun to turn down invitations to speak at Sussex or attend conferences there. The boycott will spread. University and College Union members at Sussex have voted not to hand in examination marks. The damage being done to the university's reputation is growing. It is not too late for it to change its mind and start to think creatively and, above all, humanely about the future.

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