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Universities cut History courses generating concern over elitism in the field

Aston University in Birmingham and London South Bank University have announced plans to cut History courses. Aston University plans to close its entire History, Languages and Translation Centre, whilst London South Bank will terminate its History, Human Geography, Refugee Studies, Development Studies and Education for Sustainability courses. Experts warn that the trend may be replicated elsewhere, as the government seeks to champion perceived ‘high-value’ STEM and vocational courses.

The cuts follow Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s proposals to require financially struggling universities to close so-called ‘low value’ courses with low graduate pay, to qualify for Covid-19 recovery bailouts. The bailout requirements require the affected universities’ ‘commitment’ to free speech. The University and College Union’s general secretary Jo Grady said these twin conditions are evidence that ‘the government is prepared to exploit universities’ financial difficulties to impose evidence-free ideology and reduce the diversity and strength in depth of university courses and research’.

The projected closures have generated concerns that History, Languages and humanities studies may become the preserve of the elite, with those unable to leave home to study less able to access the subjects, which are available at less universities. Popular historical author and Professor of Public Engagement with History at the University of Reading, Kate Williams, told The Guardian that History ‘should be a degree that is open to all, and that means it must be available to those who want to study locally’. 

Older universities have been able to recruit more History, Languages and humanities students following the removal of the cap on student numbers. This has been detrimental to smaller History and humanities departments elsewhere, with fewer than 40 of London South Bank’s 7000 students enrolled this year in the programmes it seeks to cut. 

Professor Catherine Fletcher of Manchester Metropolitan University said this disparity ‘gives more choice to some students, but leaves others from less privileged backgrounds with no options at all’, raising further concern over the pressure on academics in expanding History departments at Russell Group universities. 

The Universities and Colleges Union protests the cuts, particularly given their impact on academics at the affected universities. London South Bank History Academic Sami told the Socialist Worker that the LSBU cuts were a ‘kick in the teeth’, particularly as the courses were pulled…from UCAS before telling staff’. 

Some commentators have noted that History graduates are indeed ‘employable’, with British Academy research indicating that eight of the 10 fastest-growing sectors in the UK economy employ more graduates from the arts, humanities and social sciences than other disciplines. Others have criticised the metric of valuing higher education courses based on their employability prospects, with Ms Grady lamenting the underemphasis on ‘critical thought’ as a desirable component of university education, rather viewing education ‘in crude economic terms’ as she feels the government has done .

An Aston University spokesperson said: “This is an open and ongoing consultation, and we are in discussions with potentially impacted colleagues and UCU. We are unable to comment further at this stage.”

A spokesperson for London South Bank University (LSBU) said, “Decisions around the courses we offer to prospective students are taken very carefully.  We regularly consider how our courses provide students with the skills they need to enter high quality jobs or further study, previous enrollment levels and how they support LSBU’s strategic goals including social mobility and removing barriers to student success.”

“Out of LSBU’s 7,000 new entrants in the 2020/21 academic year, less than 40 enrolled against the seven courses that are closing.  We want to re-shape and re-energise our offer to strengthen our student’s teaching experience and research outcomes.”

“Our long-term ambition is to increase total spend on LSBU staff involved in educational delivery by 2025. This includes increasing the quality of contact through small group teaching with a focus on ensuring students have the skills, experience and knowledge to progress to high quality employment or further study.” 

Image: Number 10/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via flickr.com

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