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A History for the Future

James Vernon is right. It has long been a truism that British history is dying in the US. That was the story when I began graduate school in the mid-2000s, several years after the Stansky Report. I began dissertation research during the 2007-8 financial crisis, and I watched job postings dwindle severely. By the time I was on the job market, it had not recovered in any meaningful way and indeed I struggled. In 2013, I was hired as a tenure-track assistant professor through a target of opportunity search, but there I was a good fit primarily because of my extensive expertise in Caribbean history, though my expertise as a modern British historian nicely complemented the early modern Britain professor in the department. The US job market in British history has only deteriorated further since, not helped by the serious collapse in European history jobs. This is of course part of a much broader crisis facing the discipline of history in the US that is so severe that it has now reached US history. And as Asheesh Siddique noted in his introduction to this series, there is the additional retraction of most of the research funding in the humanities. It may be a truism, but the crisis in the US is still urgent.

Yet the crisis for British history in the US may have obscured for North American scholars the even more devastating destruction of university history underway in the UK. Historians’ livelihoods are under direct attack across the country, as is the basic ability for many history departments to exist or conduct their everyday business. To be sure, one of the reasons North American scholars have not realized the severity of the situation in the UK is because it has taken academics in Britain entirely too long to realize this for themselves. Large-scale redundancy programs have been gutting history and humanities departments for several years now, but it was only in the last year that the Royal Historical Society (RHS) made a forceful public statement that diagnosed a national crisis, and only in the last two months did the RHS reach a point of written fury when describing the situation at Oxford Brookes.

 Black and white image shows a wide street leading back towards a church like building as a vanishing point. Two figures, a woman in the foreground, and a man much further off walk the street. Palm trees line the right side.
Postcard featuring Church Street, Basseterre, St. Kitts, c. 1910. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The reasons are complex, and Glen O’Hara will outline some of them in his essay. They are also interlocking. Higher education in the UK runs on several unwieldy systems of national oversight that have led to onerous workloads as the numbers of young people who went to university increased rapidly over the last 3-4 decades. With teaching load not a contractual matter, the mechanisms for determining how much an academic employee can do in a given year bake overwork into the workload spreadsheets through their foundational assumptions. A centralized sector, UK higher education is highly sensitive and vulnerable to sudden government decrees or new policies, like the tripling of student fees in 2012 and the lifting of caps on student enrollments that applied to all universities in 2015. As caps were lifted, Russell Group institutions took as many students as they could, whether they had the lecture hall and dorm space for them or not. As their incoming cohorts increased, they did so at the expense of post-92 universities, the former polytechnics that became universities in 1992. In an honours degree system, admissions are core department business, and each department’s existence can hinge on the previous year’s admissions. A single bad recruitment year can lead to major redundancies or closures a year later.

Years of industrial action have successfully defended the defined benefit pension that was under severe attack in 2017-18. But University and College Union’s (UCU) campaigns have been less successful in tackling workload, pay stagnation, casualization, and ethnicity and gender pay gaps. And it is an open question whether UCU has a national strategy for fighting redundancy schemes as they pop up all around the country. The burden instead falls very heavily on local branches and volunteer caseworkers, who go up against the army of management consultants, banks, university councils, and heavy-hitter law firms that university senior management teams amass.

Altogether, the situation in the UK can be described as follows: significantly overworked and demoralized academics, exhausted after years of industrial action and pandemic teaching, are now at any moment vulnerable to sudden closure or redundancy. The toll a redundancy scheme (and the instability that often precedes it) takes on a department is severe: in addition to the people who are made redundant, other people begin jobhunting or take voluntary severance, and the people left are slammed with the workload of a formerly larger department that still has students to teach. When I left academia last year, fewer than half of the people who had been in the Goldsmiths history department when I arrived in 2019 were still there. Nearly all of us, if not all, who left without being made redundant did so because of the worsening climate at the institution, myself included.

I’ll be blunt. Given the pace and suddenness of redundancies and department closures, the belief within government that the humanities are for elites only, and the difficulties UCU and professional organizations have in battling these redundancies, it is not clear to me how many history departments in Britain will be left in 2030 and how much research they will be doing.

This is a direct threat to the field of British history as a whole. British studies has long been an international enterprise. Indeed, one of NACBS’s great strengths is the way it has for decades brought together scholars working on Britain from many countries. These extensive intellectual exchanges have been essential to the field’s growth. US scholars emphasized that British history and British imperial history were not separate endeavors to be done by different groups of people, while historians based in Britain have more recently pushed their North American counterparts to consider how the history of emotions can reshape our analyses. Scholars from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have insisted on a more robust understanding of settler colonialism. That rich intellectual collaboration and dialogue now needs to shift into a robust and internationally informed understanding of the global crisis that British history faces.

But as we do that, we have to ask a difficult question: should British studies as an enterprise survive? The old infrastructure that we lament here was not working. British history has a well-earned reputation of being hostile to innovation. British studies does not hold the role of critiquing the very underpinnings of the nation that many aspects of American studies do. Higher education in Britain in particular has proven resolutely unwilling and incapable of fostering and supporting the careers of Black academics, and despite noises to the contrary, British universities continue to suppress Black British history, which they have done for decades. The situation for British Asian history is even worse. I left academia in part because I knew there was no space within British universities for me to do the work I want to do, work I believe is urgently important to producing a British history fit for the 21st century. And so as we worry about the fate of British history, we must also imagine a different future for it.


Christienna Fryar is a writer and independent historian of Britain and the Caribbean. She left academia in 2023, and she is currently writing Entangled Lands: A Caribbean History of Britain, which will be published by Allen Lane/University of California Press.


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