Art History Uptake at UK Universities

A Statement from the Association for Art History

It has been widely reported that since the economic downturn of 2008-09, the uptake of humanities subjects at the university level in the UK (and in the US) has dropped. The most recent word on this trend from the art press comes in an article in the Art Newspaper on the larger humanities picture and the decline over the last ten years in UK-domiciled students taking art history. While there has been a decline, a closer look at the statistics shows that over the last five years the number of UK students entering art history undergraduate programmes has stabilised at around 1,000 with another 250 students coming from outside the UK. (This more recent trend has been recognised in an amended version of the article.)

Subject choices do not happen in a vacuum. Contributing factors in the choices made by UK students are the tripling of university tuition fees in 2012 and the government’s policy over the last ten years to actively steer students away from the humanities and towards the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).  Indicative of the many expressions of this policy are the statements in 2014 of the then Secretary of State for Education, Nikki Morgan, now Secretary of State for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, that STEM subjects opened doors to a variety of career options and that the assertion that humanities subjects do the same “couldn’t be further from the truth.” This is contradicted by reports and a Harvard University study citing a decreased need in the job market for ‘hard skills’ (financial, technical and other specific requirements for a post) gleaned from a STEM degree in favour of ‘soft skills’ (creativity, persuasion, collaboration, and written and verbal communication) associated with the humanities.

Among humanities disciplines, art history graduates in particular enjoy a wide range of career options.  In addition to teaching and research at the university level, graduates work in museums and galleries and in the heritage sector as curators, educators, conservators, registrars and become professionals in development, communications and marketing, exhibitions, publications, visitor services and facilities management.  They also work in the vast and profitable art market in galleries and auction houses and assume roles in trusts and foundations, including artists’ foundations, as programme officers, researchers and administrators.  There are a number of indicators of the vitality of the arts and culture industries in the UK all of which represent opportunities for art history graduates: a 2019 independent report commissioned by the Arts Council concluded that the arts and culture contribute £10.8 billion annually to the UK economy; nearly 50 million people visited DCMS-sponsored museums in 2018-19, the highest total since record keeping began in 2002-03; and the growing global art market showed a turnover of $67 billion in 2018.

Studying art history has value beyond preparing graduates to work in the thriving arts and culture sectors, it gives us an insight into humanity and into the lives of others through the prism of works of art; it provides ways to interpret and connect to the visual world around us, and it provides us with skills which make us better and more thoughtful citizens, enhancing our ability to analyse, question and engage critically with issues confronting society and individuals.

Fostering those skills in aspiring art historians and in turn advancing the study and practice of art history is a central objective of the Association for Art History.  We collaborate with our stakeholders at universities and schools to engage students in the subject, to draw those from diverse backgrounds to the subject and to prepare graduates for careers. Art history is not offered as a GCSE in the UK. With our colleagues at the University of Leeds, we have devised and delivered a programme to enable teachers of art and design at both GCSE and A level to introduce art history into their curricula.  In the three years of the programme, these teachers have brought art history to over 25,000 students throughout the UK.  We have also worked with the National Extension College to create an online A level course  in the history of art, to commence later this month. This course will help to address the geographic disparity in England where there are very few opportunities to take the A level north of London.

Along with enabling a geographic diversity, the Association for Art History, is exploring ways in which we can work together across the sector to diversify the cohort of students taking art history at university.  The Higher Education Committee of the AAH will convene a session at our 2020 Annual Conference in which academics will share success stories and best practice in attracting a more diverse pool of applicants to undergraduate art history programmes.  This collaborative approach will invite universities to participate less as competitors for students and more as colleague institutions addressing an important issue in the field.

The landscape in art history education has improved since the threat to the A level in 2016.  Along with the new A level online, there will now be a test centre for the A level in the north at the Grammar School at Leeds; the Brighton Hove & Sussex Sixth Form College will newly offer an A level beginning in Autumn 2020 and in response to extensive market research about the interest in art history at the undergraduate level, the Open University will move from offering a humanities degree (with art history) to an art history and visual cultures degree beginning in October 2020 with the addition of five new permanent teaching posts.

A subject association is most effective with the support of its constituents and partners, including the institutions and businesses which provide employment for those trained in the field.  Through vigilance and coordinated efforts, we will continue to advocate on behalf of art history, stressing its importance in a well-rounded education and influencing relevant policy.  We encourage those who are interested in participating in our advocacy work to sign up for updates, take part in our conference session on undergraduates in art history, or contact us to learn how we can help you support outreach to schools in your area.

Gregory Perry, CEO, Association for Art History

Image: Undergraduate student Conference Assistant at our 2017 Annual Conference at the University of Loughborough.

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