Stockpiling students? Undergraduate History and English edition

Appendix to Number 94: #USSbriefs94

Leon Rocha
Published in
6 min readApr 12, 2020


Leon Rocha, University of Lincoln

‘Vulture Capitalists but Henry VIII riding in a Panzer, artwork by Leon Rocha, based on DarkWorkX image.

In USSbriefs94, I used Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) data on undergraduate and postgraduate student numbers from 2014–5 to 2018–9 to analyse the unequal growth of the UK HE sector, arguing that a number of universities have been effectively ‘stockpiling’ students. In the first Appendix, I then investigated the 19 Scottish HE Institutions, coming to the conclusion that HE marketisation has made the two ‘Russell Group’ universities in Scotland — Glasgow and especially Edinburgh — even more gigantic and powerful than they already were. In this final update (for now), I am going to zoom into undergraduate recruitment numbers in two key humanities disciplines — History and English — across 100+ UK universities.

Once again, I am using HESA DT051 Table 13, ‘HE student enrolments by HE provider and subject of study’, from 2014–5 to 2018–9. I remixed the data and created a Google Spreadsheet that you can download and scrutinise.

There are 12 columns in the Google Spreadsheet:

(A) UKPRN: UK Register of Learning Providers unique identifier
(B) HE provider name
(C) Classification: Pre-92, Pre-92/Russell Group, or Post-92 universities
(D) V0-V3 (2014–5): the number of students enroled in History degree programmes with JACS/HESA/UCAS codes (V0xx to V3xx) in 2014–5; most History degrees in UK have the JACS code V100
(E) V0-V3 (2018–9): ditto but for 2018–9
(F) V0-V3 Growth: V0-V3 (2018–9) minus V0-V3 (2014–5)
(G) % V0-V3 Growth: growth of History from 2014–5 to 2018–9 expressed as a percentage
(H) Q3 (2014–5): the number of students enroled in English degree programmes with JACS/HESA/UCAS codes (Q3xx) in 2014–5; all English Literature and English Language degress in UK have this JACS code
(I) Q3 (2018–9): ditto but for 2018–9
(J) Q3 Growth: Q3 (2018–9) minus Q3 (2014–5)
(K) % Q3 Growth: growth of English from 2014–5 to 2018–9 expressed as a percentage
(L) V0–3 + Q3 Growth: growth of History plus growth of English

Where on earth have all the History students gone?

Let us do the big picture first. From 2014–5 to 2018–9, the number of ‘non-science’ undergraduate students increased from 931,110 to 950,790 (+2%). However, Law and Business Studies were responsible for a lion’s share of this growth. History and English in fact shrunk during this period.

In 2018–9, there were 103 UK universities offering History undergraduate degree programmes. There were 4 new programmes (City; Aston; Bournemouth; London South Bank) and 3 universities closed History some time between 2014–5 and 2018–9 (Bradford; London Met; Birmingham City).

The total number of History undergraduates contracted from 45,540 (2014–5) to 43,275 (2018–9) — a drop of 5%. Again, to state the obvious, not all History undergraduate programmes shrunk by 5%. A large number of universities have been ‘stockpiling’ History students, leaving a large number of History departments unable to recruit: HE marketisation in action.

The top ‘stockpilers’ in History Undergraduate numbers (2014-5 to 2018–9). See this Google Spreadsheet for the full data.

The top 10 ‘stockpilers’ in undergraduate History programmes include:
Exeter (expanded by 320 UG History students, or 34% growth)
Queen Mary (+290, or 67% growth)
Glasgow (+275, or 18% growth)
Lincoln (+265, or 91% growth!)
Liverpool (+265, or 62% growth)
UEA (+260, or 40% growth)
Edinburgh (+235, or 17% growth)
Cardiff (+215, or 36% growth)
Birmingham (+165, or 21% growth)
Leeds (+150, or 14% growth)
Most Russell Group History departments have been beneficiaries of this system.

Colleagues at the universities named above will be able to comment on whether the increase of permanent academic staff matched the enormous influx of undergraduate students at those History departments. A reminder that all this growth has been taking place in the context of an overall contraction, i.e. there have been fewer History students going around compared to 2014–5!

The top ‘losers’ in History Undergraduate numbers (2014–5 to 2018–9). See this Google Spreadsheet for the full data.

At the other end of the scale, History undergraduate recruitment collapsed at a number of universities. The significant decline in part-time study in recent years has seriously harmed the Open University (-1,450 students; -33%) and Birkbeck (-1,125; -69%). The ‘losers’ in this brutal competition for History students included a mix of Pre-92 and Post-92 universities: Swansea (-195), Hull (-165), Nottingham (-165), QUB (-150), Nottingham Trent (-140), Aberystwyth (-130), Kent (-110), Essex (-105), Sheffield Hallam (-100), and many others.

A very English bloodbath

While the total number of History undergraduates shrunk by 5% between 2014–5 and 2018–9, the picture was even grimmer for English Language and Literature. The total number of English undergraduates contracted from 48,425 (2014–5) to 40,465 (2018–9) — a decrease of almost 8,000 students or a 16% drop. Susanna Rustin argued in The Guardian that English’s decline had to do with the damaging changes to English GCSE and A-Level, which had put students off studying the discipline at university level.

The top ‘stockpilers’ in English Undergraduate numbers (2014–5 to 2018–9). See this Google Spreadsheet for the full data.

The top 10 ‘stockpilers’ in undergraduate English programmes include:
Cardiff (expanded by a remarkable 570 UG English students, or 30% growth)
Birmingham (+340, or 48% growth)
Reading (+135, or 30% growth)
Glyndwr (+115, or 37% growth)
Lincoln (+95, or 32% growth)
Newcastle (+95, or 12% growth)
City (+90, new programme)
Liverpool (+90, or 18% growth)
Durham (+90, or 20% growth)
Leeds (+70, or 8% growth)
Again, most Russell Group English departments have been beneficiaries of this system.

The top ‘losers’ in English Undergraduate numbers (2014–5 to 2018–9). See this Google Spreadsheet for the full data.

At the other end, once again the Open University had seriously suffered, along with mostly Post-92 universities. Notable cases included Roehampton (-230), Anglia Ruskin (-235), Hull (-200), Kingston (-155), Falmouth (-155), and Aberystwyth (-140) which have basically lost half of their students.

There is one more measurement we can look at. We know that many universities have been seeking to expand student intake in History and English aggressively, because these disciplines do not require expensive infrastructure. We are both cheap as chips and the magic money tree. While some universities have prioritised ‘stockpiling’ History students, others have focussed on growing English, but some institutions have done both.

So let us now put History and English side by side, and see what transpires:
Cardiff (+215 History, +570 English)
Birmingham (+165 History, +340 English)
Lincoln (+265 History, +95 English)
Exeter (+320 History, +40 English)
Liverpool (+265 History, +90 English)
Queen Mary (+290 History, +40 English)
UEA (+260 History, +60 English)
Edinburgh (+235 History, -5 English)
Leeds (+150 History, +70 English)
Glasgow (+275 History, -55 English)

The top ‘stockpilers’ in History AND English Undergraduate numbers (2014–5 to 2018–9). See this Google Spreadsheet for the full data.

In my many casual conversations with colleagues in History and English departments across the UK, I know everyone is under enormous pressure to up their undergraduate student numbers. Jobs are under threat in departments that have seen recruitment numbers decline. But even departments that have actually bucked the trend and increased undergraduate student numbers by 10%, 30%, or even 50% in the last five years must continue to expand (infinitely?) at senior management’s behest. Very often, these pressures are ‘individualised’. Admissions tutors must rewrite their promotional materials every year, must host even more open days and offer holder days, and must somehow reinvent the curriculum every two to three years — as if any of these ‘strategies’ will actually make a meaningful difference against this destructive system of marketisation that allows universities hoover up hundreds of students. It’s a fool’s errand.

TLDR version: Where have all the History and English students gone?

They are in Cardiff, Birmingham, Lincoln, Exeter, Liverpool, Mile End in London, and Norwich.

This paper represents the views of the author only. The author believes all information to be reliable and accurate; if any errors are found please contact us so that we can correct them. We welcome discussion of the points raised and suggest that discussants use Twitter with the hashtag #USSbriefs94; the author will try to respond as appropriate. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.



Leon Rocha

Trade union campaigner and organiser; historian of modern China and medicine