There is a Crises in UK Academic Archaeology BUT it’s not the one you think

Posted on February 20, 2013


All of yesterday and now most of today I have seen this Guardian article making the rounds on social media sites, forums, etc.- Will the study of archaeology soon become a thing of the past? It was written by a historian,  Michael Braddick who also happens to be the pro-vice-chancellor for the faculty of arts and humanities at the University of Sheffield. So he is actually coming at this angle not as an archaeologists but as pro-humanities?  faculty politician? Not that doing so is a bad thing (in fact it should be done more often) but it does mean he is using archaeology as an example and is not exactly concerned with just archaeology:

“Archaeology is not alone. ‘Hard’ or ‘small’ languages are also under pressure. They too, will struggle to make their way on the basis of research grants so that the national capacity in Russian, German and Portuguese are likely to decline. As with archaeology, a standard university response will probably be to reduce costs – by concentrating on language teaching, and reducing the provision in the politics, sociology, history or literature of those societies. We might expect more degrees in, say, politics with Russian language, emphasising accurate use of the language, and many fewer which emphasise cultural understanding in the fullest sense…..”

Again, nothing wrong with rallying the troops to defend the humanities BUT he is looking at the wrong problem:

Archaeological science is expensive, and does not attract research funding driven by the search for economic growth. Student numbers are low, nationally, and although student satisfaction measures and price put it on a par with history and English, archaeology departments cannot attract students in the same numbers, and are finding it hard to cover their costs.

A second aspect of government policy exacerbates the problem, the “core and margin” policy. Universities can now recruit unlimited numbers of students with A-level grades of ABB or better (the ‘margin’ which can grow), but are allocated reduced numbers of places for students with lower grades (the ‘core’ allocation). Archaeology has traditionally recruited heavily among ‘core’ students (often those from poorer backgrounds), and departments around the country are being caught by this. Highly selective universities now have a relatively small ‘core’, and little room for manoeuvre in mitigating short-term movements in demand among high performing A-level students….

Basically, he says that the new higher fees are going to drive students out of archaeology (and the humanities). The problem is that this is not the case. I could easily argue that the majority of archaeology students DO NOT ATTEMPT to become archaeologists, that archaeology is mainly taught upper tier schools were students are just going for a degree but will do something else with their lives, etc. etc. etc. but instead I will just show the numbers:

Archaeology Students in the UK

Archaeology Students in the UK

I got this data from The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) which tracks enrollment numbers by degree in the UK. Looking at those numbers we can see that the number of full time students has stayed steady (for the most part) or gained (postgraduates) but that part-time students have dropped and has been dropping for years before fees were raised (the jump in numbers around 2001-2003 is because they reclassified categories and archaeology gained lots of students as a result). Guess who happen to be part-time students? Well you don’t actually need to know that, they track those numbers. Part-time students are what would be called in the states non-traditional students. These are students who are older, not 20 or 21 but 30 or 40 or 60, who have a degree and are coming back for a second one and for the most part are NOT looking for a new career (though some are). In other words, people who are interested in archaeology and want to learn more.  Oh, these part-time students do not need to worry too much about A-levels either. Basically, archaeology departments have failed to engage with non-traditional students and have been doing so for over a decade now. The tuition increases have nothing to do with their falling numbers. In fact, the latest numbers just came out a few days ago and guess what (included in graph, 2011/12 actually means students who started this last fall) with a 3x tuition increase in England and Wales full time archaeology students numbers were down 35 for undergraduate and 10 for postgraduate. The higher tuition had no statistical impact on the number of students undertaking archaeology degrees (part-time continued to fall as part of the decade long trend).

Essentially, while I have sympathy for the plight of the humanities and archaeology I do believe their problem is one of their own making. Through the good times and the great recession, through low fees and high fees the numbers have not change course and they have done nothing about it. Academics have a problem with students but it is not the problem they are talking about.