University History

By Pearce, Robert | History Today, August 2003 | Go to article overview

University History


Pearce, Robert, History Today


THE LAST WORDS OF GEORGE V (unless one accepts the tetchy 'Bugger Bognor' alternative), were 'How is the Empire?' He had left his enquiry rather late. History Today, though, keeps a more timely eye on the state of university history. Almost half the hundred or so higher education institutions that teach history in Britain have contributed to our eleventh annual survey, and this provides a unique snapshot of opinions in tertiary-level history education. It also provides a corrective to unfounded innuendo and the headline-grabbing superlatives of the press allowing us to hear from a group of men and women whose teaching, research and writing are indispensable to the well-being of the subject.

Who Studies History?

There is no doubt that history remains highly popular. Many report that applications have been rising or at least holding steady, and for a majority of colleges, the trend over a five-year period has been upwards. At King's College London applications are up 40 per cent this year. Interest has never been higher, reports Gary Moses of Nottingham Trent University. Several universities, including Sheffield, have increased their intake while at the same time raising admission standards.

But Leeds Metropolitan University, where applications 'fluctuate', is not the only 'new university' where intake has been squeezed by expanded recruitment among the 'old'. Some colleges, like Middlesex University and Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds, report a decline, while at Bangor (not a 'new' university) numbers 'bounce up and down year on year'. In Manchester, though, the new Metropolitan has seen applications rise by 60 per cent in the last two years.

What makes them different?

Given so much competition between departments, how are new students to differentiate between their offerings? For many, catchment area is a crucial issue: Paul Ward at Huddersfield, for example, notes a decline in applications across the country and comments that 'most of ours come from the M62 corridor'. Those universities that can, stress their high ratings in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and in the findings of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). Others stress the breadth and diversity of the courses on offer (70 in Part II at East Anglia, 'roughly 100' at Oxford; 'from the Ancient Near East to the Colombian drug terrorists' at University College London); the focusing of teaching on the popular modern era (at Westminster and Liverpool John Moores); overseas exchange schemes (Manchester Metropolitan alone offers such schemes with Sydney, Toronto and North Carolina); and past degree results (Queen Mary London can boast 75 per cent achieving a First or Upper Second). Many also make a virtue of their connections with local museums or archives. At Bristol, for instance, there is fertile collaboration with the British Commonwealth and Empire Museum, at Chester College with the local Military Museum. Almost every institution makes a point of stressing the excellence of its historians as teachers and that their teaching is informed by research; the smaller ones also stress the friendliness and approachability of the staff.

Modularisation is now the norm, so deviations from that norm can be selling points too. Durham makes a point of avoiding 'methodology modules', believing such issues are best addressed as integral parts of more traditional courses. Bristol makes a virtue of offering year-long courses, rather than shorter modules. King's College London goes further, and retains a 'finals-based degree'. Whereas modules tend to be assessed as soon as they are completed, the historians at King's recognise the appeal of a degree 'which doesn't have a modular structure' and which consequently allows students space to gain experience (i.e. initially to make mistakes) and to develop their skills. David Kirby at London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies agrees: 'It may seem terribly old-fashioned, but the study of history does require space and time for reflection; it does not fit well into modularised degrees which serve up discrete dollops along the way. …

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