As noted here three years ago, UK contract archaeology is in a deep slump where hundreds of archaeologists have been laid off and a number of excavation units have closed shop. Those experienced and well-connected field archaeologists who got the sack didn’t evaporate: many of them are still out there waiting for the job market to improve.
Now, in Current Archaeology #268, Mark Horton (prof. arch. Bristol) warns about “an oncoming archaeological crisis in universities”. After an all-time high in the 90s and mid-00s, UK archaeology student admittance numbers have declined steadily:
2012: 450 (projected)
This has taken place without the impetus of any changes to the student funding system. The figures basically describe the passing of a media fad, with Horton attributing the peak to Time Team’s mid-90s popularity. But starting in October, UK universities will raise their term fees sharply due to a recent political measure. There are currently about 28 archaeology departments according to Horton’s estimate. Marginal ones are now gravely endangered, it appears. (For an idea of which ones will close first, check this ranking list that many students use.)
What then is Horton’s advice? In his opinion, the best way forward is to market archaeology as a fun subject that will give you useful secondary skills. We should tell students to study archaeology without any expectation of working as archaeologists. He may be right: that might be the best chance those 28 departments have. But it’s not a good one. As I always say, employers usually have their pick of people with useful primary skills.
If you take a larger view of these developments, though, you’ll find that the upcoming employment crisis in university archaeology is not a major social ill. It affects a few hundred teachers. University departments are not there primarily for the students, nor for the teachers, nor for the well-being of academic subjects in abstract. They are there to serve the societal machine’s needs of specialised parts. And making far more spare parts than society needs is poor resource management. From the individual’s point of view, meanwhile, it is of course also deeply damaging to be lathed into a part that never gets slotted into its place in the machine – witness my own periodical whining on this blog.
Update 5 July: The Birmingham department is being closed down. So far no explanation has been offered to the public.