Popular History

Article excerpt

Undergraduate history remains in a healthy state, despite the `double whammy' lurking ominously on the horizon: the joint threats of tuition fees and of reductions in funding may affect both the profile of students applying for history and how they are taught in the future. Although the government's decision to impose a 1,000 [pounds sterling] -a-year fee on new undergraduates has had a minimal effect on undergraduate history so far, these are early days, and the longer-term side-effects, both good and ill, will take time to emerge.

History appears to be maintaining its popularity in general, but it is modern history that is attracting students, in particular -- and hence continuing the trend for twentieth-century European history at GCSE and A-Level.

Applications for history remain strong at places such as Lancaster and Nottingham Trent. Even where numbers have dropped, though, as at Exeter, the falls have been in line with the university as a whole. As Ian Beckett of Luton says, `Undergraduate history is a very competitive area and the older and more established universities perform strongly as one might suppose.'

One such university, Manchester, finds itself in the enviable position of reporting a 2-5 per cent increase on 1997 applications, which themselves were an increase on 1996. Heavily over-subscribed, over 2000 people applied for around 300 places on its single and joint honours courses. Durham boasts similar rises although elsewhere the situation is less clear cut. The University of East Anglia reports a 20 per cent drop in applications, but a rise in the quality of candidates.

Reading, though, fears that history will have a less prominent role in the school curriculum. `This,' they say, `May well have an adverse knock-on effect on the numbers wishing to pursue history at degree level.'

However, as Christine Hallas of Trinity and All Saints at University of Leeds notes: `Despite the decline of history in schools recently, pressure has been increasing for single honours history.' The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) agrees: `History has increased in popularity with one cohort of school-leavers and with mature students (hence the larger proportion of single-honours applicants), but it is decreasing in popularity with school-leavers as a whole.'

Moreover, Stephen Burwood of Staffordshire University fears that historical skills are being sacrificed at schools, as a result of `the obsession with league tables which has reduced the capacity of students to develop skills of independent thought in favour of exam-passing techniques, tending to reduce history to `the five causes of. …