How lucky our historians are

STONE THE CROWS it looks like history is, well history, in the US and UK.

In the US, universities are not hiring historians and in the UK undergraduate history, along with all other humanities subjects, is under threat following the coalition government’s decision not to pay people to teach it.

Given the state of the two countries’ economies this will not lead to rioting in the streets. Nobody much will notice if starting out historians do not get jobs or some established ones are retrenched. But it should matter to everybody who believes history is the bedrock of a nation’s sense of itself.

There is not an historian in a hundred who makes a living from publishing their research and most of those who live by their pens, inside and outside the academy, avoid areas that are obscure. The vast bulk of original archive based research is done by academics who are also required to teach. 

And in the UK at least it looks like those who want to keep their jobs will be putting a lot more effort into their teaching, to keep the customers satisfied.

In the UK, the coalition government has decided to rush headlong into the 1990s, by adopting the Browne committee’s proposal for a scheme that looks remarkably like HECS.[i] Tuition fees will triple to stg 9000 a year, with a small sum repayable out of people’s pay once a debtor’s income exceeds stg 21,000 pa.[ii] But the resulting outrage, when a plan based on this proposal passed parliament, diverted attention from a far more radical idea the government also adopted.

At present in the UK, as here, the state gives each university a bucket of money to fund undergraduate teaching, which institutions allocate across all their faculties. But while Browne proposed the teaching of courses delivering “significant social returns”, notably in science, technology and health, should be subsidised by the state other disciplines would have to cover their costs solely from student fees.[iii]

The government loves it and the result is arts and social science academics, including historians, will have to generate fee income to pay their wages. For all but the staff of elite institutions this seems more unlikely than assured. As an analysis by the Higher Education Policy Institute dryly puts it, “there must be a prospect that some students will baulk at paying a fee of up to 9000 stg for a course that is likely to lead to rather uncertain financial benefits.”[iv]

And the humanities lobby appears to have capitulated, accepting it cannot survive on the teaching income it will generate. Dean of Arts at City University, London, Christina Slade simply states that the DASSH (deans of arts, social sciences and humanities) “is likely to be much reduced in size”. [v]

Perhaps. On the Australian experience none of this means undergraduate history is doomed. Certainly the cultural studies crowd have ensured that what interests history readers – politics and war – does not dominate academics departments anywhere, but even with HECS the broad discipline has survived in Australian universities. [vi]

Nor are academic historians vanishing. While the strength of the history department at the University of Sydney dropped from 41 in 1988 to 26 in 1996 there are 33 academic staff now, 50 including the classicists.[vii]


But in the brave new British world where academic historians will pay their way by attracting fee paying students only the brave, or people with patrons, will contemplate postgraduate work.

It is the same in the US, where changes in academic fashion and hard times have made new history PhD s all but unemployable in universities.  While history department strengths held up for most of the last decade, the future for new job seekers is bleak. In 2008-09 jobs advertised fell by 23 per cent and 29 per cent in 2009-10. This is very bad news for the 1000 or so people who complete PhDs each year.[viii]

This does not mean the number of historians in the US will decline rapidly, only 40 per cent of tenured staff are expected to retire over the next 20 years.[ix]  Or that the output of highly specialised research will disappear. There are around 30,000 academics teaching 200,000 plus history majors at US universities and many thousands of these teachers will keep on pumping out papers.[x]

But inevitably less government money for employment means a focus on what brings in the dollars. In the UK this will likely lead to less research and more teaching. In the US fewer jobs will mean an older professoriate. And without new people with new interests there will be more of the same sort of research.

In the great scheme of things this is no big deal – academic historians in the main write for each other rather than the rest of us. Nor is it an argument against accountability, while academics hate the British plan it will appeal to tax payers there who see academic life as a welfare system for the very clever.

But the work of scholars spending years in archives and now cyberspace sooner or later shapes the community’s sense of the past and without new work by new people today’s fashions will ossify into orthodoxy. And anybody who observed the way the academic community here closed ranks against outsiders in the stolen generations debate knows that the orthodox dislike engaging with dissenters.

It looks more of the same for decades to come in much of the anglosphere. The crows hope university historians here know they are well off.


[i] Lord Browne of Maddingley, Independent review into higher education funding and student finances recovered on 2 January  

[ii] “A narrow victory on fees”, The Economist, 9 December 

[iii] Browne op cit 47

[iv] John Thompson and Bahram Bekhradnia, “The government’s proposals for higher education funding and student finance-an analysis,” Higher Education Policy Institute, 11 November 2010 @  recovered on 4 December

[v] Christina Slade, “No art to savage British cuts” The Australian, 24 November 2010

[vi] In the US for example, under 3 per cent of academic historians cite politics and military history as their specialities, Robert B Townsend, “What’s in a label: changing patterns of faculty specialisation since 1975” American Historical Association, Perspectives, January 2007

[vii] Tony Taylor, The future of the past: final report of the national inquiry into school history (Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, 2000) 11,, , recovered on 8 January

[viii] “Job freefall, job recovery,” Inside higher ed, 3 January 2011 , recovered on 8 January 2011

[ix] ibid

[x] American Historical Association, “History Departments in the US at a glance,”  recovered on 8 January 2011