History at University 2002. (University History)

Article excerpt

`CRISIS IN THE UNIVERSITIES' is again eye-catchingly emblazoned across the educational press. We are told that, after more than a decade of expansion twinned with under-funding, institutions are unable to offer the same quality of education to their students, and there are even calls for the New Universities (Old Polytechnics) to be returned to local authority control. To critics, more apparently means worse: degrees are now what A-Levels used to be. But is history immune? After all, the `pastime of past time' is reputedly more popular than ever before, and the inflated fees of media dons have become the stuff of tabloid headlines. So how fares history in higher education? History Today's annual survey provides some of the answers.

A Buyer's Market

There is a well-established gradual decline in the numbers of sixth-formers opting for A-Level history. Yet over the last few years there is an equally unmistakable trend for expansion in history at undergraduate level. Applications are again up for 2002-3. Several institutions are experiencing marked upward swings: up 50 per cent at the London School of Economics and at Royal Holloway, for example, with rises of around a third at Westminster, York and Sheffield, a quarter at Leicester and Dundee, and 20 per cent at King Alfred's Winchester. Meanwhile a large number of other universities report `buoyant', `gently rising' or at least `steady' recruitment.

Yet several institutions do report falling numbers of applicants. Though recruitment for history up at Bristol, that for Economic and Social history is down. Recruitment is `marginally down' at Huddersfield, Central Lancashire, Chester College of Higher Education and at London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES). At Bradford there is an unspecified `decline', at Staffordshire there are (euphemistic) `fluctuations', while Goldsmiths' College, London, and Southampton report more exact falls, at 5 and 8 percent respectively.

We should not, however, equate applications with firm acceptances. At Manchester Metropolitan, applications have more than doubled over the last two years, and yet the history department is unable to recruit as many students as five years ago. Also significant is that many universities have to run faster to stand still. In view of declining levels of funding attached to history students, institutions are often unable to maintain existing staff and resource levels unless they expand. Eric Evans believes that Lancaster, and many other pre-1992 universities, will be required `to admit inflated numbers ... to earn our corn'. The department at Liverpool find themselves `hard pressed' to maintain staffing levels despite an above-average increase in applications.

Subject Matters

Single Honours are the most popular history degrees at several universities (for instance at Durham, Oxford and Cambridge), but most have adopted the modular system whereby history can be twinned with a wide variety of other subject areas. At Sheffield Hallam, history combined with English or Criminology is the most popular option. At Reading. history can now be studied alongside music and typography. Surrey Roehampton offers history combined with no fewer than 34 other subjects. At King Alfred's Winchester, however, history is now being taken with a more restrictive range of subjects.

As over the last few years, many departments have bemoaned the degree to which `men with moustaches' dominate the curriculum. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are certainly very popular--for instance at Reading, Nottingham Trent, Liverpool John Moores and Central Lancashire. At the University of the West of England the popularity of 20th-century international history `threatens to cause an mbalance within the school'. At St Andrews `late' courses are the most popular, and this is also the case at Sheffield Hallam and Royal Holloway. …