History at University 2000

History Today, August 2000 | Go to article overview

History at University 2000


THIS IS AN OPPORTUNE MOMENT, amid continuing controversy about the universities, to consider history in higher education. Is the discipline becoming a minority interest, as the Jeremiahs have long been predicting? And how is the battle between `traditionalists' and `postmodernists' affecting historical study? Is the trend towards an unwholesome concentration on the 20th-century dictators being accentuated? How fares the past in the present? History Today's recent questionnaire, sent to all institutions of higher education in Britain, does not provide all the answers but it certainly gives us clues aplenty.

Packing Them In

Each year fewer sixth-formers opt for A-Level history. The trend is well established. But what of applications to read history in higher education? Several institutions are experiencing marked swings: up 50 per cent at the London School of Economics, for example, and down 50 per cent at the University of Teeside. There are increases at Leeds Metropolitan, Edinburgh, Keele, Nottingham, Sheffield and York, while falls are reported from Huddersfield, Nottingham Trent, Derby, and Ulster. At most other institutions there is stability, though some admissions tutors coyly report uncertainly as to exact figures. Overall there seems no sign of crisis, and most institutions have widened the prospective pool of applicants by considering those without history A Level. Malcolm Crook tells us that at Keele performance is not adversely affected by the lack of the A Level. The history department at Sheffield University has already made the decision to accept suitable students who gain the new AS qualification in history, even if they do not go on to complete the full A Level. Such a policy should increase the pool of potential applicants, though early indications are that only a small percentage of lower sixth-formers will fulfil government policy and take five AS subjects.

Yet if there is no crisis of recruitment overall, the great majority of universities -- in England, Scotland and Wales, including the Open University -- bemoan a significant fall in the number of mature applicants. The only exceptions reported to us are Cambridge, Oxford Brookes and University College Chichester, which is managing to maintain its 35 per cent of mature students. Colin Heywood of Nottingham reports the efforts that are still being made, via access courses, to recruit mature students, but that it is becoming more difficult to do so. Many admissions tutors point the finger at the deterrent of course fees. Arthur Marwick reveals that more Open University students than before are trying to avoid the additional expense of summer schools. At the University of the West of England the steady increase in fees at MA level has begun to deter students.

Many universities work hard at trying to attract mature students and also students from poorer social backgrounds, but their efforts often seem to fall on stony ground. The history department at Royal Holloway in London, for instance, has Open Days, team visits to groups of schools and visits by individuals to schools. John Charmley of the University of East Anglia is certain that, because of the financial burden, participation is narrowing not widening. (`Education, Education, Education !!! Forsooth!'). Hence typical entrants into higher education are once again likely to be aged eighteen to nineteen, though now they tend to be drawn from a university's local catchment area. Recruitment at Huddersfield, Portsmouth and Sheffield has been strengthened by this trend.

Working for a Degree

The introduction of fees seems to have had less impact on school-leavers, especially since, as Fiona Venn of Essex points out, payment is means-tested, so that around a third of all students pay no fees at all. More important in deterring applicants, she believes, is the abolition of student grants. She is very aware of `the increasing extent to which students are obliged to work part-time in order to survive financially'. …

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