The Society for the Study of Labour History is shocked to learn that History courses are set to close at a number of post-92 universities, including the University of Sunderland, London South Bank University and Kingston University. Other universities have also embarked on programmes of voluntary redundancies which far too often operate below the radar, reducing the numbers of well-published and experienced historians by stealth. As history staff are less likely to be redeployed in a shrinking sector these losses will have a significant impact on the availability of history teaching, and on the quality of the student experience. This attack on the discipline is further compounded by the shift away from single honours to combined programmes, reducing the History curriculum to a predetermined, highly selective skeletal core. As the Royal Historical Society note in their official statement these cuts will impact most of all upon ‘students of a particular demographic’: those from poorer families who are unable to study beyond their immediate community, mature students and those from BAME backgrounds.
Whilst the attack on the Humanities predates the pandemic, recent government pronouncements that such ‘dead end courses’ are poor value for money, that will not lead to graduate employment, have gathered considerable traction in recent months. This flies in the face of several reputable studies which concluded that there is scarcely any meaningful differential between the earnings power of arts and science graduates. Nevertheless, the review of student fees that is currently underway is almost certain to privilege science and maths subjects and many universities will act to ditch lower revenue subjects. With ever greater emphasis on the importance of apprenticeships, rather than university degrees, it is difficult not to view this as a manoeuvre to return higher education to its former elite status.
If studying History becomes the preserve of elitist institutions then the chosen curriculum is more likely than not to reflect a more conservative, partisan view of the past. This is deeply ironic given the broad consensus around the need to decolonise the History curriculum to ensure a more inclusive national story is articulated and heard. And just as recent debates about the memorialisation of slaveholding philanthropists have finally brought the lives and struggles of enslaved peoples into full focus, the conversation about how to incorporate that more nuanced interpretation might be stopped dead in its tracks. Who will write or teach the ‘history from below’ then? ‘As a Society we are dedicated to preserving historical resources connected to the labour movement, and to fostering a deeper understanding of the working lives, politics and culture of ‘ordinary’ people in the past. We are committed to promoting an effective counternarrative to the traditional emphasis on the role of the elite. Increasingly, we are concerned that these damaging developments will serve to downgrade and marginalise labour history, making it ever more difficult for students to study it and for labour historians to secure university employment.
Widening access to higher education has been one of the great successes of the twenty-first century, opening up opportunities for those who are the first generation in their families to study for a degree. As Adele Owens, a final-year history student at the University of Huddersfield, observes
As a mature student with children, studying for a degree in History at the local university was my only logistical option. What made it even better was that the content on offer was varied, interesting and well taught by enthusiastic and supportive academics. It is through studying History within a university environment and mixing with people from all different classes and cultures, that I have had the opportunity to discover my own position within the areas of politics, ethics and patriotism, amongst others. It is this personal experience that has made me realise I want to help others develop their own ideas and understanding of the world. I want to teach History at secondary level as I feel that young people can learn more about themselves if they are able to discover people within the normal and every day of History. The Royal Historical Society have correctly argued that ‘high quality research and teaching in History is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy and an informed, tolerant citizenry.’ I cannot think of a more crucial and appropriate time for the study of History to be supported and encouraged across all levels of education.
As a Society, we stand with our members and colleagues who now face the threat of redundancies; and we look for a return to the educational principles and ethos that made the study of people’s history a realistic expectation for all.