Our research shows the number of history academics in Australia has dropped by at least 31% since 1989


The Australian Catholic University has recently announced it will abolish academic positions in history as part of broader cuts in the humanities. Staff are understandably shocked and dismayed by the news.

Regrettably, the plight of these academics is part of a broader decline in the study of history in Australian universities over the past few decades.

As our yet-to-be-published research shows, the ACU cuts are dramatic and extreme, but not inconsistent with the way Australian universities have treated one of their foundational disciplines for some time.

What is happening to academic historians?

In 1989, there were about 450 full-time equivalent paid positions in history disciplines in Australian universities. In 2016, we did a detailed survey showing they had fallen to 347 – a 23% drop. This is despite a huge increase in size of the overall university sector during the same period.

At the time of our study, we attributed this drop to the effects of the commercialisation of Australian higher education, through the increasing reliance on industry funding, overseas students and fee-based courses.

There was also a misguided belief on the part of some potential students – and parents and others advising them – that humanities degrees do not lead to meaningful jobs. Political hostility from conservative governments and some sections of the media would not have helped.

We repeated the survey in 2022 to gauge the impact of COVID cost-cutting by universities and the Morrison government’s Job-ready Graduates program.

This program was introduced in 2021 and made humanities subjects, including history, 113% more expensive in a bid to steer students towards other fields such as nursing and teaching.

We asked all heads of history programs to provide us with student and staff data. We also collected the same figures from New Zealand universities for comparison.

Our findings

The results were alarming and point to a crisis in the study of history in Australian universities.

We found student enrolments (anyone studying a history course) had declined by roughly 23% since 2016.

Teaching and research staff numbers had also continued to slide, down another 8% to 319 full-time equivalent positions. This takes the overall drop in staff numbers to 31% since 1989.

However, it does not factor in the staff who are set to lose their jobs at ACU. A draft document circulated by ACU in September suggested up to ten positions in history could go. On Tuesday, ACU Deputy Vice-Chancellor Abid Khan told The Conversation the university’s plans had not been been finalised, “therefore proposed or perceived numbers about roles are not accurate”.

There are also fewer staff and students in history in New Zealand than there were in 2016. But the decline there has been half that in Australia – a 4.6% decline in staff and 10.1% reduction in student numbers.

Why are we seeing this decline?

The recent decline may owe something to the Job-ready Graduates package discouraging humanities study.

But other factors are also likely to be at play here. The massive size of the international student market in Australia – and its role in cross-subsidising research – distorts university decision-making about investment and resources even in good times.

This means resources are diverted away from disciplines such as history and into areas such as management, information technology and engineering (where there are far more international student enrolments).

On top of the political and commercial hostility towards the humanities, there is also a belief arts degrees do not lead to meaningful jobs. This is misguided.

A 2021 Workplace Gender Equality Agency study revealed earnings of those with undergraduate humanities degrees are comparable to positions in the science and maths sector.

In the tougher COVID era, when combined with explicit messages from the government that students should stay away from the humanities if they want well-paid and rewarding work, the effects are predictably pernicious.

Why is this a problem?

Historical perspectives are key to understanding the present. So if people are not studying, teaching and researching history, this is an enormous problem for Australia.

Consider any major issue affecting Australian society, from Indigenous affairs, to housing policybushfire readiness and domestic violence. Historians have produced research, informed public policy, and educated students.

Jobs today and in the future will not just need technical skills but skills taught by the humanities, including critical thinking, creativity and expression. The rise of artificial intelligence and robotics only serves to underline this reality. The very skills taught in humanities and social sciences, including history, will be needed to discern what can and cannot be automated with advantage to society.

There is also a civic dimension. A healthy democracy relies on a large population of citizens who can discern the difference between evidence-based knowledge and wild conspiracy theories.

What can we do about this?

If we want to protect and promote history (and other humanities disciplines), we need the support of governments and university managers. The fixes themselves are not difficult.

One immediate fix is to reverse the fee changes introduced by the Morrison government in 2021. The Universities Accord interim report has all but confirmed Job-ready Graduates will be scrapped, but we don’t yet know what will replace it.

Governments could also fund and insist universities fund foundational disciplines such as history, science and maths properly.

Another possibility might be to provide stronger incentives for study across different realms of knowledge. Why shouldn’t architects understand something of Ancient Rome, or medical students learn more about the minorities they will be working with? By the same token why shouldn’t arts students be required to grapple with commerce and science, or the latest digital technologies that might extend their reach?

If we don’t find solutions soon, we will, as the aphorism has it, not know ourselves.

Author Bio: Martin Crotty is Associate Professor in Australian History at The University of Queensland, Frank Bongiorno is a Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University and Paul Sendziuk is Associate Professor in History at the University of Adelaide