Next year, my 'Gaul in the Age of Gregory of Tours' special subject will not run. Apparently it 'failed to recruit'. This is the first time this has happened in over twenty years of offering that course. At York it never got fewer than ten takers, and the time it got ten was last year, when I came back from my Leverhulme and the students didn't know me. My head of department, not one to praise me unnecessarily, called it 'one of our most popularly rated Special Subjects'. Apparently, this failure to recruit was true across the board with medieval options, which at least relieved me of some of my more paranoid fantasies, but it raised a far more ominous issue.
Some of us predicted all along that the fees regime would kill off intellectual curiosity among the students. After the Labour government introduced variable fees, students became notoriously more instrumentalist and 'consumer-minded'. Now, with full fees and an outlay of £27k at stake, it's probably not surprising that they want to stick to tried and tested subjects and not risk (as they see it) a topic they don't yet know about. Some institutions have even gone as far as to encourage this by insisting that all students always get their first choice - they're customers now, you see, and all universities are running scared of the National Student Survey. This all poses a big threat to subjects like medieval history, which are much less familiar, but also probably to any subject that is in some way equally off the beaten track, such as non-European, and possibly even pre-modern non-British subjects. We cannot expect any help from University management, which has done nothing so far - at all - to defend higher education as a basic social good. Any attempts to expose students compulsorily to non-mainstream Hitler and Stalin history is likely to be blocked by management. I wouldn't even expect many history departments to do anything about it. I have already worked in one department where this sort of 'market-driven' model was used to log-roll modern history at the expense of earlier periods, even when the picture changed and student options flatly contradicted it. In a market-driven UKHE we might well have to envisage the possibility that medieval history ceases to be taught outside Oxbridge, except perhaps as a token lecture/topic, in the not too distant future (cp. Univ. of Warwick; Sussex got rid of all its pre-modern European and pre-early modern British coverage a couple of years ago: that, dear reader, is the shape of the future). You probably didn't hear it here first.