Contrary to general belief, UK academic history has never successfully isolated itself in ivory towers. Over the last 30 years, changes in the organisation of higher education and the way in which it has been funded have impinged on historians. Expansion in the numbers of students and in the numbers and kinds of institutions in which they are taught have faced historians with challenges over teaching methods and achieving an appropriate balance between teaching and research. The funding of research and its external evaluation has shifted the ground away from evaluation by one's peers to a complex game of choosing research topics, competing for funding and responding to an increasing concern with the volume of publication. It has become necessary for academics to engage with governments and their agencies.
History was one of the first disciplines to have high-profile national groupings to represent them, and remains one of the most proactive. The roots of History UK (HE) go back to the days of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s when two parallel organisations developed: the History at the Universities Defence Group (HUDG) (for the universities) and the Campaign for Public Sector History (PUSH) (for polytechnics, colleges and institutes of higher education). The establishment of new universities such as Warwick, York and Lancaster in the early 1960s was complemented by the designation of polytechnics at the end of the decade. These local authority-funded institutions designed programmes to be validated by a national body, the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA).
The catalyst for change was a government desire for greater financial efficiency in higher education. The policy of expanding student numbers was retained, but it had to be paid for by reducing costs. In the universities, this took the form of a blunt tool by which the University Grants Committee (UGC) required universities to save money through the imposition of early retirements in 1981. Each institution decided independently which posts to lose, with the consequence that nationally certain areas of the discipline were disproportionately affected. Each institution acted without consideration of any national impact. Alarmed at the implications for the discipline, a group of university historians led by Professor R. H. C. Davis, the President of the Historical Association (HA), met at the University of Birmingham in April 1982 in the week in which the Falklands War began. They decided to lobby the government on the basis of a detailed assessment of the overall impact of the staff cuts on history. A disturbing picture emerged of major discrepancies. Whole parts of the discipline were placed in danger as redundancies and early retirements left some universities with few or no academics in specific periods or sub-disciplines. HUDG subsequently took on a more formal status in order to continue to lobby for the discipline and to carry out regular surveys of university staffing to monitor the impact of change within the university sector.
The threat in the public sector came later and was more focused. By the mid 1980s national responsibility for validating degrees had been extended to embrace overall planning. The National Advisory Body was established in 1987 to rationalise non-university higher education. Its proposals included the complete elimination of humanities teaching from several institutions including Newcastle Polytechnic, Brighton Polytechnic and Humberside College of Higher Education. While active lobbying by individual institutions led to the abandonment of these proposals, the threat to history was clear enough, and, following a meeting of interested parties organised by the Historical Association, a parallel organisation to HUDG was established. PUSH held its first meeting at the University of Birmingham on a date which turned out to be the Saturday following the 1987 hurricane. Attendance from the south of England was limited as a result.
Like HUDG, PUSH set out to establish itself as a national voice for historians in public-sector sector institutions, to collect data about the distribution of staff and specialisms, and to bring staff together by means of conferences dedicated to issues of teaching and employment and a regular newsletter. This was the first time that many had been put in contact with others in the sector. From the start, the two organisations co-operated with each other, sharing information and pooling resources. They had representatives on each other's steering committees, and as government policy initiated the abolition of the binary line between universities and polytechnics in 1992 as a way of expanding higher education yet further, PUSH merged with HUDG to create a common subject association, which took on its current name in 2005.
Even before the merger, HUDG had moved beyond a narrow 'defence' of the subject. Data about the state of history in higher education was still collected, and this continues to be the case, but much more came within the group's remit. Working with other organisations such as the HA, the Royal Historical Society (RHS) and the Economic History Society (EHS), as well as groupings dedicated to teaching such as History 2000, HUDG took action over a range of issues affecting the work of university historians. Some of these actions were initiated by the group, but others were a direct response to government policy. Four areas were particularly important: the development of the national curriculum for schools, the Research Assessment Exercises (RAE), the establishment of benchmarks for subjects in higher education, and the need to make a case for history degrees as a useful source of skills in employment. It held discussions with government institutions, nominated members of government working groups, and continued to collect and disseminate ideas from and to historians in higher education through conferences.
HUDG took a close interest in proposals to reform the school history curriculum in 1996. History was identified as one of the core subjects to be studied by all children until the age of 16, later reduced to 14. There was a strong sense both among historians and government policymakers that school and tertiary education should be seen as a seamless web. Particular concerns were expressed by historians over the range of history to be studied and the extent to which study at earlier ages encouraged children to consider continuing to degree level. Members of the HUDG committee sat on bodies to discuss the National Curriculum alongside schoolteachers and policymakers.
The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) was instituted by the government even before the ending of the binary line in 1992 as a way of distributing research funding in reflection of the quality of publications produced by members of subject departments in universities. Each exercise, which tended to take place every seven years or so, created considerable anxiety among historians and took up much time and effort, which many believed to distort research activity. HUDG has actively participated in the consultation exercises before each RAE, has facilitated meetings between historians and the chairs of history panels, and has analysed the results for history afterwards. At the same time, it has been forced to recognise that the terms of the RAE create a competitive climate between institutions as well as an artificial job market in the period immediately before each exercise.
In 2000, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) established benchmarks for academic subjects taught at university level in order to identify the common elements of the disciplines. HUDG was asked to nominate members to sit on the benchmarking group and to initiate a national debate over what constituted a history degree. The resulting benchmarking statement now lies at the core of degree design and represents the first widely agreed expression of a historian's skills and qualities of mind, criteria for content, and criteria for progression from one degree level to another.
With its emphasis on skills, the History Benchmarking Statement (1) also enhanced a long-term HUDG campaign to highlight the employability of history graduates. The growth of vocational degrees, the introduction of tuition fees and the widely held perception in schools and among the parents of sixth-formers that history was both 'difficult' and not 'relevant' made it essential that the case for studying history at degree level be made as effectively as possible. The task remains unfinished, but continuing buoyancy in the numbers of history students in higher education has been reflected by an increase in history staff in a number of places, and by the reintroduction in 2008 of a history degree by the University of Loughborough, which had closed down the subject some 15 years earlier. Almost a generation after it was first established, History UK (HE) continues to have a robust role in making the case for university-level history and confronting new challenges as they emerge.
Dr Alexander Cowan is Reader in History at Northumbria University. He was the founding Chairman of PUSH, and served for many years on the HUDG Steering Committee.