Matt Elton: You recently sent out an email newsletter in your capacity as Royal Historical Society [RHS] president, highlighting the issue of university history funding. What do you, and the RHS, see as being the problem?

Emma Griffin: My sense is that things are bad, and getting worse. My predecessors as RHS president would occasionally hear from a department being restructured or closed down. Now we get these emails every couple of months. It was also previously the case that a history department at risk of closure was typically a small department in an institution that didn’t have a very long tradition of teaching history. But we’re now hearing from much larger universities that have had a large and thriving history department for perhaps 60 years, and with 30 or 40 members of staff, that are suffering really serious recruitment and retention problems. So we do think there is a real problem, and we do think it’s connected with larger decisions about how undergraduates are funded in the UK, which have particular implications for disciplines such as history.


Are figures available for these cuts?

There is no real way of knowing how many historians, history departments or history degrees are being cut. However, as far as we can tell, there hasn’t been a very large drop in the total number of students. Instead, we’re looking at the clustering of lots of students in a small number of institutions – particularly the ‘Russell Group’, whose 24 members include the UK’s largest, oldest universities.

Almost all funding for history departments comes from student fees, so if you’re not getting enough students, you have a really serious financial problem

They are suddenly making the decision to admit many more students than in the recent past. This means that other institutions – even those with very healthy, viable history departments – can’t recruit enough students. Almost all of the funding for history departments comes from student fees, so if you’re not getting enough students, you have a really serious financial problem.

Young people at the University of East Anglia, 1974
Young people at the University of East Anglia, 1974. This institution is 60 years old, with a long-established and respected history department – but one that, like many of its peers, is under threat from staffing cuts. (Image by Getty Images)

So are particular types of universities being most affected by the latest cuts?

Absolutely. Initially, cuts in history tended to occur in very small departments, or in departments that had been created relatively recently. But now we’re seeing cuts at the universities of Kent and East Anglia (UEA), with large, strong history departments. Despite being highly regarded research institutions for history, they are struggling to recruit students.

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You’re currently a professor at UEA – but is it your view that this is a problem that extends beyond one specific institution?

Yes. I’ve been seeing these problems in my role as RHS president for the past three or four years, and was shocked when staffing cuts were announced at UEA earlier this year. But I wasn’t aware of the number of good, strong universities that were also suffering this kind of turbulence.

Universities have explained staff cuts by citing the need for rapid and huge cost savings. What would you say in response to those kinds of explanations?

I think that what we’re seeing is the playing out of government-level policy decisions about funding for undergraduate education. The reality today is that every undergraduate student in England pays £9,250 in fees per year [£9,000 for home students in Wales, with fees in Scotland currently capped at £1,820 and Northern Ireland at £4,710], yet some degrees are much more expensive to teach than others. It costs a lot more to train a nurse, for example, than to deliver a history degree. But all undergraduates pay the same amount, so the only way universities can remain financially sustainable is by recruiting as many students as possible to the cheaper-to-deliver degrees.

Previously, admission numbers were limited for individual courses, to ensure that universities couldn’t over-recruit. Those caps have now been lifted, so larger Russell Group universities can recruit as many as they like – and they are motivated to do so, because history and other humanities subjects are relatively cheap to deliver. Universities therefore bring in as many students in those disciplines as possible, to cross-subsidise more expensive science and medical departments. This creates problems for those that can’t now recruit the number of students they need to make a history or English degree sustainable. They might previously have recruited 100 students in a year; now they’re able to recruit only 50 or 70. Those students are still studying history – they’re just at a different university.

So do you think that history degrees are particular victims of a wider problem with how UK universities are funded?

Humanities degrees generally, which are quite cheap to teach, are all victims, because a fair bit of their fees will be subsidising other courses. This throws up a whole range of questions about fairness. Also, when a department that has the capacity to teach 200 students admits 400, it has serious implications for students’ learning experience. With a very large cohort, there aren’t enough rooms, books in the library, or personal mentors to go around. The students are paying a large sum of money for a system that is not really designed with their interests in mind.

Does this situation also have implications for university academics?

Although a lot of history is, of course, done outside universities, a lot of our most serious research is undertaken – and ideas generated – in universities. The kind of turbulence we are talking about creates a scenario in which it can be quite difficult for historians to produce that kind of research. If you’re in a department that’s admitted a large number of students, it can put a lot of pressure on your research time because you’re busy teaching all of these students.

It’s very difficult to do research when your job is at risk and you’re worried about how you’re going to pay your bills

Conversely, if you’re in a department that no longer has a large number of students, you might have more free time, but fear of redundancy may well create a lot of anxiety. It’s very difficult to focus on research when you’re worried about how you’re going to pay your bills.

Do you think funding decisions reflect government priorities about history’s importance versus that of other subjects?

No, I don’t. When the government permitted institutions to set their own fees up to £9,000, as the limit was at the time, the expectation based on market forces was that degrees might be charged at different rates. A history degree that didn’t cost very much to teach, for instance, might be charged at £5,000 or £6,000, so students could choose from different degrees and institutions based partly on price. But what actually happened was that universities charged the full £9,000 for every student on every course. The current situation is really an unintended consequence of this marketisation: a market hasn’t been created in the way it was envisaged.

The public popularity of history seems undimmed. Why do you think these cuts are happening, given this wider interest?

When you speak to historians in university departments, this is the thing they find most puzzling. The subject itself is in great health. There is so much interest and enthusiasm for history, and it’s such an important part of contemporary society. So I don’t think the problem is that people are falling out of love with history. or that history has been in some way tarnished by becoming embroiled in the ongoing ‘culture wars’. I think what we’re looking at is simply a problem about how our universities are funded.

Do you have any other concerns about the impact of university courses ending?

One concern is that the closure of small departments impacts what we call ‘commuting students’. These may be mature students, or people from lower-income families, who don’t have the means to go and live elsewhere in the country, who will thus choose to live at home. When their local university shuts down its history department, those students may have permanently lost the chance to study history. This raises major questions about access: does studying history become the preserve of middle-class children, or should it be available to everybody?

What will the RHS be doing next to investigate this issue?

What we’re doing at the moment is trying to get a measure of the problem. We’re also really interested in trying to communicate the magnitude of the issue, both to historians and the public. I’ll be RHS president for another 18 months or so, and I imagine I’ll still be working on this consistently – as, I should think, will my successor.

Emma Griffin is professor of modern British history at the University of East Anglia, and president of the Royal Historical Society:


This conversation first appeared in the September 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine


Matt EltonDeputy Editor, BBC History Magazine

Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.