An oncoming archaeological crisis in universities

What price higher education? Mark Horton, Professor in Archaeology at the University of Bristol, assesses the impact of higher fees on university archaeology departments.

One of the bedrocks of archaeology in recent years has been its relentless expansion in universities, producing ever larger numbers of students and employing increasing numbers of academics, paid – at least in the public eye – to have a free ticket to research whatever takes their fancy. But maybe this is all about to come tumbling down. In the new, near-privatised fee regime starting this October, what future is there for archaeology in the universities?

Most university departments rely on students to pay for their existence. From October, each undergraduate will have to pay up to £9,000, and virtually every archaeology department will be charging the full whack. Of course, students won’t have to find £9,000 immediately, because this is provided by the government as a loan to be paid off over 30 years. Take living costs into account and it is estimated that most students will leave university with a debt of around £60,000. They will then be expected to pay this off when their income reaches over £21,500 per year. If, after 30 years, any balance remains, this will be written off. Given the appalling pay rates in archaeology, the government may find themselves writing off a lot of archaeologists’ student loans!

But what is the impact of having to pay such substantial fees going to have on student recruitment? It is a very serious issue, as without students there will be a significant loss of posts and the shrinking or even closure of departments.

The staff/student ratio in archaeology is around 15:1. With courses lasting three years, for every five students who decide not to study archaeology at university, one academic post could be at risk. At present there are some 28 departments offering some form of archaeology in the UK, and around 510 active lecturers and professors.

BELOW Universities should stress the importance of practical and transferable skills in an archaeology degree.
Universities should stress the importance of practical and transferable skills in an archaeology degree.

This size of archaeology in Britain is already too large for the size of student demand to study archaeology. Here the figures are very depressing. It is possible to track the rate of applications to study archaeology since 1996 through the UCAS system. These were the heady years when Time Team had begun to make an impact on the nation’s consciousness, and archaeology acceptances were at an all-time high of 704 students – which, if sustained over three years, would leave around 2,000 undergraduates studying single honours archaeology at any given time. While still quite small, this represented a near doubling of earlier rates, and Deans and Vice Chancellors were keen to jump onto the archaeology bandwagon, and expand.

Unfortunately those 704 students represented the high-water mark for archaeology, and only in 2005 did figures get anywhere near this peak again, at 681. Since then there has been a year-on-year decline, so for 2011 there were only 511 acceptances, a 25% decline from 2005.

But the same period has witnessed a huge expansion in higher education, and many of our cognate subjects have successfully increased their numbers: history by 26%, geology by 35%, and anthropology by a massive 40%. Only classical studies has gone down – but by a modest 3%. Nearly twice as many students currently study classical studies as study archaeology.

Above Training digs: one of the joys, and one of the expenses, of an archaeology degree.
Training digs: one of the joys, and one of the expenses, of an archaeology degree.

We do not know what the actual numbers will be this October, but application rates have been published. History is up 3%, geology 9%, anthropology 20%, but poor archaeology is down again by 12%. If this is translated into actual numbers, we should expect 450 students in 2012, numbers only previously seen in the pre-Time Team days of the early 1990s.

In reality there will probably be rather more students studying archaeology than these figures suggest. Many departments have to resort to ‘Clearing’ to make their numbers up; others will use joint degrees to boost numbers, or have students take some archaeological options. Part-time students are also missing from these counts. The trend, however, is unmistakeable. Archaeology is in serious decline, and we have been wholly complacent about it for too long.

Counting the cost

The impact of fees is likely to have a further negative effect. Teaching of archaeology is relatively expensive, requiring laboratories, fieldwork, and equipment. This used to be recognised by the government who ‘banded’ their support according to whether it was a ‘blackboard’ or laboratory subject. This has gone, and archaeology students will bring the same unit of resource as subjects that are much cheaper to teach, such as history or classics. Pure sciences and medicine will continue to receive some subsidy, but as yet it has proved impossible to persuade government to help the ‘part- laboratory’ disciplines such as archaeology, geography, or indeed modern languages for any help.

Perhaps even more serious is what is being called the ‘squeezed middle’. The government is trying to introduce competition into the higher education sector by progressively deregulating maximum student numbers that universities can admit. So this year, the cap has been removed for AAB students – that is those achieving grades of AAB at A-level – and next year, it has just been announced for ABB students. To pay for this, universities that charge £9,000 will have their maximum student numbers (i.e. non-ABB students) reduced by 20%. This quota instead will be given to those universities (mostly former polytechnics) offering cut-price courses, costing £6,500.

The problem is that archaeology departments are generally located in the ‘squeezed middle’ universities, who will face significant reductions in funding if they cannot attract ABB students and continue to charge £9,000. While there are many good archaeology students, they tend to come from strongly vocational rather than academic backgrounds (and more often than the national average from state rather than private schools), and to have lower-scoring A-levels. This will leave universities facing weak demand, and reduced numbers, with little option but to cut archaeology numbers.

Are there any solutions if we are to keep a healthy university sector? One problem is the perceived poor career prospects in archaeology. While the commercial and contract side of archaeology has grown massively in recent years, employment conditions and salaries remain almost 19th century – the life of an archaeologist is often little better than a navvy. Unit pay is low, and neither the IFA or English Heritage have been particularly helpful in moving the profession forward. When I talk to prospective students at Open Days, can I really claim that there is a wonderful career waiting for them?

Standing in a field, cold and wet. Is this how to attract students to archaeology?

Universities are also to blame. They have embraced the vocational line – that an archaeology degree trains archaeologists. This is actually very silly: do the 10,000 history students expect to be historians? No, these degrees are seen as transferable – providing the skills needed in the modern world in a variety of professions and occupations. An archaeology degree provides far more transferable skills than the majority of history or classics degrees, but because we are an ‘-ology’ we have somehow failed to get this message across to prospective students.

I think the solution – if we are to keep the archaeology sector at universities – is a radical rethink of what we offer, and how we package it to students. We need to go out to the schools and market archaeology as the best degree to study, and one that will repay the £60,000 investment, not necessarily in archaeology, but in a whole host of professions. It will mean fewer vocational archaeologists, but are there jobs for them at the end of the day?

Maybe if units start to pay their staff better, there might be archaeologists trained to fill them? Or perhaps we’ll get a new Time Team on the telly that makes archaeology sexy again!