Archaeology is a great subject to take at university. Why then are fewer and fewer students applying to study it? Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian
The first University Archaeology Day marks a point of crisis in British archaeology. As student applications fall, threatening university departments with cuts, commercial demand for archaeologists is soaring, leaving a looming skills shortage
On 22 June, the first ever University Archaeology Day will be hosted by University College London. The event aims to promote archaeology as a university subject and as a career to prospective students, bringing together archaeology departments from around the country and various organisations who employ archaeology graduates. The intention is to paint an inspiring picture of archaeology as an exciting field of study leading to a hearty spread of career opportunities, but University Archaeology Day is also a response to a growing crisis in UK archaeology, both for university departments and for the commercial sector. This crisis is likely to have repercussions well beyond the world of academia.
Archaeology is a great subject to take at university; it brings together a mix of humanities and sciences, and combines social theory, critical thinking and hard practical skills. Adventure abounds, both intellectual and actual. Why then are fewer and fewer students applying to study it? This is the question plaguing beleaguered archaeology departments across the UK which are seeing student numbers drop year on year.
The problem boils down to a combination of perceptions and financial factors. The drop in student numbers began after the 2008 financial crisis but has been exacerbated by the hike in tuition fees and the withdrawal of student loans for second degrees. Unlike earlier generations who saw university as more of a chance to experience and explore, students now increasingly see university as a financial investment which needs a decent prospect of financial reward to make sense. Subjects like archaeology, which don’t obviously lead to well paid careers, have suffered the consequences of this more hard-nosed attitude towards education. The scrapping of A-level archaeology last year is both symptom and cause of the declining profile of the subject among students.
Archaeology is more sensitive to falling student numbers than most subjects. The need for laboratory work and the requirement for a range of practical training makes archaeology an expensive subject to teach. However, archaeology is not classed as a STEM subject (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) or as a SIVS (Strategically Important Vulnerable Subject) which are favoured by government funding and admissions policies. This means that archaeology courses rapidly become uneconomic for universities if course places aren’t filled.
The problem has been recognised for some time, but the effects are only now becoming apparent. Not long since Birmingham took an axe to its archaeology department, Bangor University has announced that it will be cutting its undergraduate course in archaeology from September 2017, directly because of falling student numbers. The archaeology department at Manchester is now in the cross-hairs, fighting for its survival despite a positive recent departmental review.
So why should all this be of concern? If students don’t want to study archaeology, the subject isn’t economic and the government doesn’t consider it important enough to protect, why shouldn’t it be allowed to die back in universities? Well, in addition to the loss of the UK’s position at the forefront of international archaeological research, there’s an increasingly desperate shortage of archaeologists in the UK.
Archaeology is part of the process of planning and construction, with UK developers required to pay for any archaeological work which might be necessary. The recent surge in house building is already stretching commercial archaeology units to their staffing limits and it’s hard to see how planned major infrastructure projects, such as HS2 and a third runway for Heathrow, can be managed as things stand. A recent report by Historic England estimates that the UK will need between 25% and 64% more archaeologists by 2033 to meet commercial demand. Brexit has the potential to make the situation even worse as many archaeology units are now heavily reliant on EU nationals.
It might seem curious under these circumstances that students aren’t more attracted to archaeology as a career when there are so many unfilled commercial vacancies crying out for graduates. The problem is that up until now commercial archaeology has been mostly quite horrible.
Pay and conditions in commercial archaeology are frankly appalling for a skilled graduate profession. A new graduate can’t expect more than £16,000 – £18,000 p.a., and even a senior supervisor or project officer doesn’t earn much more than £25,000, including for jobs based in London and the southeast.
In return, a commercial archaeologist is expected to do a heavy physical job in all (British) weather. Job security is poor; permanent positions don’t come easily and many archaeologists are employed on a project-by-project basis. Traditionally, most young archaeologists don’t stay in commercial archaeology for more than a year or two before escaping to another part of the heritage industry or by transferring their many skills to a more lucrative career – by which I mean almost any other career.
However, commercial archaeology is finally starting to respond to the looming skills shortage. In 2014 the Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) managed to get a Royal Charter for the profession, which will hopefully begin the process of elevating archaeology away from its traditional amateurish image of bearded enthusiasts in funny jumpers towards a more serious professional ethos. A host of new training initiatives have been launched, mostly as collaborations between universities, commercial units and the CIfA, aiming to improve skill sets, raise standards and encourage people into the profession.
Between the shortage of trained archaeologists and the renewed efforts by the commercial sector to improve the lot of archaeology as a profession, it seems likely that pay and conditions will have to improve, especially if developers want their housing estates, runways and high speed rail lines delivered on time. In fact, there might never have been a better time to get into archaeology; that’s if there are university departments left to train at.
In this context University Archaeology Day needs to succeed in order to protect archaeology as a university subject, in order to let commercial archaeology become the respected profession it should be, and in order to avoid a huge headache for the construction industry in a few years time.
Further reading: British Academy’s Reflections on Archaeology Report