The State They Are In: History and Public Education in England

James Vernon, March 2011

No history departments have yet closed in England but it may just be a matter of time. In the past year England has become the frontline for the defense of history’s public value as a discipline. Historians in England (those in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have so far been protected by their own parliaments and assemblies) face multiple crises. There is the repositioning of history in schools, the removal of all public funding for it to be taught at universities, and the increasingly heavy hand from the government in the distribution of research funding around its own priorities.

The increasingly attenuated position of history in England echoes a more general debate about the purpose and public value of the humanities and social sciences. As neoliberal states across the world disinvest from public educational systems, the pressures on the humanities and social sciences to justify their public utility and value have been growing. This is no less true of the United States. Last year the closing of the philosophy department at the University of Middlesex was followed soon after by the “suspension” of the departments of French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater at SUNY Albany.

Even before the latest round of cuts imposed in England, the University of Sussex had restructured its impressively ranked history department by axing entire fields of study (along with the faculty who taught them)—British history before the 18th century and European history before the 20th century—because their low enrollments apparently made them unsustainable. Now the government has announced it will entirely cease to fund the teaching of arts, humanities, and social sciences at English universities from 2012. Historians in England must now defend the public utility of their discipline against a seemingly pervasive belief in market mechanisms.

Perhaps they can take heart that no one questions the public value of teaching history in schools. Yet even in schools, market models are being held up as the solution to its increasing marginality within the National Curriculum. This is an old story. Since the 1970s historians have lamented the waning place and increasing incoherence of the discipline in schools. The National Curriculum, established in 1988 by a secretary of education who styled himself as a historian, was designed to stop the rot by making history one of 10 required “foundation subjects” between ages 5 and 14 (it used to be compulsory until age 16). This plan appears to have only partially worked. The numbers are disputed as those involved in teaching history in schools emphasize its plight while those representing the discipline in higher education stress its continuing popularity. One study has suggested that only 31 percent of students now take specialist history GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams at age 16 and around 6 percent choose history as one of their Advanced-Level exams at age 18. And yet for the past decade history has remained the fifth most popular subject at A-Level after English, mathematics, biology and psychology and the seventh most popular subject at GCSE after mathematics, English, English literature, science, additional science, and design.

While there is concern that at both GCSE and A levels the subject is taken by disproportionately large numbers of privately educated pupils some 47.4 percent of history candidates at A Level come from public comprehensive schools (only religious education, sport, drama, technology and Welsh have a higher percentage). Nonetheless there is concern in some quarters that the subject is considered “difficult” and pupils are encouraged to take “easier” subjects: that is, subjects where students can test well and, in doing so, generate additional revenue for the school.

In creating the National Curriculum alongside a system of funding predicated around test results, Margaret Thatcher’s administration of the 1980s sought to reconcile history’s public value with the introduction of market models of distribution and patterns of student demand. The current Conservative government is no different. Michael Gove, the new secretary for education who has removed public funding for the teaching of history at universities, wants to protect the position of history in schools. Seeing history as a training ground for patriotism and citizenship, he insists that all children should know the nation’s history and what he calls (to paraphrase) “our inspiring island story.” Yet, because his prescription of an overtly “little Englander” version of history that essentially rejects the history of multicultural Britain smacks of too much government, Gove has looked to a market model of education for help.

Gove’s logic is beguilingly simple: with a better product, the “customers,” aka pupils, will come back. He thus turned to those who have made national histories so popular on British TV—first to Niall Ferguson and then to Simon Schama—to become his special advisers and make the subject popular again in schools. As an exiled Brit in the American academy, Schama possesses little expertise in the English school system. He does however share Gove’s belief that only a return to narrative history will make the discipline exciting and popular in schools—and only then can it perform its civic functions. Many historians have cautiously welcomed the appointment as they too have disdain for the diet of popular but unrelated examples of tyranny and suffering—from Henry VIII to Hitler—on offer in schools.

Leaving aside the contentious questions of whose narrative, what story, and which geography will now organize the teaching of history in schools, we can say that the lesson to be learned here is straightforward: the “market knows best” even when a market fabricated by the state delivers what the state defines as the public function and value of history.

The same confusions are apparent in the position of history at universities. Following the publication of the Browne Report in October 2010, and under the cover of emergency austerity conditions, the British government has effectively scrapped public funding for the teaching of degrees in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.1 They have replaced it with a system of student loans and fees that works for no one. Students are now forced to pay £6,000–9,000 as annual tuition fees—at least double what they used to pay—and to see higher education as a private investment in which one bets on future higher earnings with graduating loans totaling around £50,000. Universities that had hoped to be able to have the constraints of public funding removed and no upper limit on the fees they could charge will now receive less funding per student (about £1,300 for a typical degree student). And the government, far from reducing its deficit, has been forced to borrow an additional £5 billion to fund the loan programs. So naked is the political agenda to privatize higher education, so unnecessary and absurd the policy, that it has mobilized communities long considered depoliticized, namely Britain’s academics, university students, and schoolchildren.

It is not altogether clear how the discipline of history will fare in this new system of funding that will be introduced in 2012.

Clearly undergraduate enrollments will be supreme in the new system and those disciplines and departments that attract students will thrive, and those that cannot are likely to wither away. The good news is that since the first introduction of annual “top-up” tuition fees of £3,000 in 2006, enrollments in history degrees have remained strong at around 1 in 30 of the university population. They grew, in fact, from just over 34,000 in 2006–07 to just over 35,000 in 2008–09, a rise that can be accounted for by the general growth of the student population. The fear is that students—who now face the prospect of a doubling of tuition fees—will turn to more vocational degrees in the hope of quickly recouping their loans. In the United Kingdom students have to effectively decide their major at age 16 when they select three or four advanced subjects and then go on to university to take a degree in at most one or two of those disciplines. The worst case scenario is that in the very near future only the most privileged will be able to consider studying history at university. And if that is a likely scenario for undergraduates, it is even more so for graduates.

Certainly many departments will quickly face the predicament of Sussex: either to follow student choice by focusing on the 20th century or to insist upon cross-subsidizing a broad exposure to the ancient, medieval, and early modern worlds. Needless to say it is unlikely that many administrators will leave these choices to departments. Indeed, many universities are expected to struggle to survive and the government hopes that private providers (including online ones) will take up the slack of those that go bankrupt. It is no coincidence that in July BPP was made the second for-profit capable of granting degrees in the UK.2

Privatization of the system will also engender a new parochialism. It is already clear that language and specialist methods training in, say, paleography, will be easy targets. As Richard Evans has powerfully shown in his Cosmopolitan Islanders, the number of universities able to train students in foreign languages has already fallen dramatically in recent decades. This not only impoverishes undergraduate education but also severely curtails the possibilities of graduate education in historical fields dependent upon them. It may well be that Michael Gove gets his wish and that within a generation the modern island story of Britain will be the only history still being taught and researched.

Equally alarmingly it seems Gove will also get his way in the distribution of research funding. When the government announced it would no longer support university teaching of the arts, humanities, and social sciences, much was made of the fact that this had enabled the protection of research funding for those disciplines. And yet, as Peter Mandler has highlighted so well, this has obscured a critical change in the ways in which those funds will now be distributed through the agencies of the British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. With so little consultation with these “stakeholders” that no one noticed, the government has declared that almost all funding will now be directed to those research areas it identifies as strategic priorities: “communities and big society; civic values and active citizenship, including ethics in public life; creative and digital economy; cultural heritage; language-based disciplines; and interdisciplinary collaborations with a range of STEM subjects.” Peer review will be kept so that historians will be left to naturalize this system by judging how well their colleagues’ research projects fit these criteria.3

It is then tempting to conclude that historians in England have lost the argument about the public value of their discipline. Perhaps in a country where the Department of Education has been renamed the Department of Business, Skills and Innovation there was never any hope of winning it. Of course the neoliberal assault on public education and the position of the humanities and social sciences within it is a transnational phenomenon but we must still ask why it has met with such success in the England—why historians there now find themselves in such a hazardous position.

One unkind explanation would be that historians, like those in other humanities and social science disciplines in the UK, were effectively transformed by the audit culture designed to transform the mechanisms of public funding. The Research Assessment Exercise (1989) and the Teaching Quality Assurance (1993) sought to measure the excellence of research and teaching in order to create market competitions for the distribution of funds and league tables for students to make informed choices as consumers.

The incentives and disciplines of this audit culture did what they were supposed to do: they created a new entrepreneurial academic who embraced the new market conditions of career advancement. It is unsurprising that in these conditions it was easier to lose sight of the public value of history and why historians’ scholarship matters. Too much was written too quickly, research projects echoed the language of funding councils, and classes were reduced to their learning aims and objectives.

Yet there is also an important structural explanation. Britain’s public educational system is (or at least was) predicated around universal provision by the state through national uniform standards and this made it much easier to effect change. The universality of the public system ironically made it especially vulnerable to state-directed projects of market-led reforms and privatization.

Finally, the discipline of history in Britain has lacked the coherent professional voice of an organization like the AHA. While the past three decades have seen a greater standardization and regulation of public educational systems, historians in the UK have continued to speak through a multitude of professional organizations—such as the Historical Association, the Royal Historical Society, History UK (HE), and the Better History Group—each with its own different constituencies, interests, and preoccupations.

There is no single body that represents the discipline as a whole to the government or engages in systematic mapping and analysis of professional trends and patterns. Neither is there an annual conference comparable to the AHA annual meeting in which historians in the UK can gather to reflect upon the state of their discipline and to showcase new directions in research or teaching.

One consequence of this is that while historians were particularly and unusually vocal in protesting the recent elimination of public funding for the teaching of their discipline at universities, they spoke in many tongues from different institutional perspectives. It may well be that if there is any chance of defending what is left of the public value of history in the UK it will require a more coordinated and coherent professional voice. The AHA is a powerful model that historians in the UK can and should take note of. It may be that you cannot fight the systemic transformation of public education through a patchwork of professional organizations.

James Vernon is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches modern British history. He was "made in Manchester," as he puts it, having received his BA and PhD degrees from the University of Manchester, where he also taught for many years until moving to Berkeley in 2000. His most recent books are Hunger: A Modern History (Harvard Univ. Press, 2007) and an edited collection (with Simon Guunn) The Peculiarities of Liberal Modernity in Imperial Britain (Univ. of California Press, 2011) now available electronically at


1. The report, entitled “Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education in the UK,” was published on October 12, 2010. Its principal author was Lord Browne (former CEO of BP). The panel was charged by the government to conduct an independent review of higher education funding and student finance. The text of the report can be found at

2. BPP (which goes only by its acronym) is now owned by the Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix, the largest online for-profit university in the United States. Details about BPP and the courses it offers can be found at

3. Peter Mandler, “While you were looking elsewhere … The Haldane Principle and the Government’s Research Agenda for the Arts and Humanities”…the-haldane-principle-and-the-government’s-research-agenda-for-the-arts-and-humanities.