Archaeology in the UK is primarily a graduate-entry profession, reflecting the need for all archaeologists to have a good grounding in academic skills. Equally, sound practical experience is required to practise competently in any area of the discipline. Most first degrees are not intended to provide this experience, nor to cover many of the practical skills required by professional archaeologists.
Over the past twenty years, there have been very rapid, wide-ranging and ongoing changes to the higher education system in the UK, and this has had significant consequences in terms of the training that students of archaeology receive from the universities. In 2001, 4675 students applied to follow archaeology degrees in the UK (UCAS 2001); not all of these applicants will have been successful, but this number is comparable with the estimated total number of professional archaeologists working in the UK (circa 4500 – Introduction). Collis (forthcoming) considers that over 1100 UK students graduate annually with a degree in archaeology, but only a minority of them seek to make their career in the profession (Collis and Hinton 1998, 15). The high numbers of students passing through the universities is the result of the policies of successive governments which have aimed to increase the percentage of the population attending university since the 1980s. The present government's target (Newsroom, 2001) is for 50% of the population to be entering university by 2010, a five-fold increase in student numbers since 1980. This increase has not been matched by funding commitments, meaning that the relative amount of funding received per student dropped by 40% in the decade from 1990. Archaeology has not actually fared as badly as some other subjects, owing to the Higher Education Funding Councils decision in 1989 to fund university archaeology departments as 'part science', recognising that there was a need for field training and laboratory facilities (Collis forthcoming); this has meant that archaeology departments receive relatively higher funding than those teaching subjects that are considered to be 'pure' humanities.
Although the 31 university departments that offer single honours archaeology degrees (Henson 1999, 6) are under increasing financial pressure, it can be argued that the quality of teaching has improved. This has been primarily in response to the QAA (below), but also following initiatives such as the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN), a network of 24 subject centres based in higher education institutions throughout the UK, offering subject-specific expertise and information on learning and teaching, helping to disseminate good practice and advising on teaching methods. The teaching of archaeology is supported by the subject centre for History, Classics and Archaeology; the Archaeology staff have established online resources and facilitate a series of focused workshops aimed at aiding staff in developing their knowledge and skills (Grant and Reynier 2001).
The higher education teaching institutions in the UK have to meet the requirements of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), who have issued a benchmarking statement for archaeology that sets out the attributes and capabilities that graduates should be able to demonstrate (QAA 2000, further discussed by two of the original Archaeology Working Group that produced the statement – Collis [this issue] and Johnson 2001).
"In terms of knowledge and understanding, students should have an understanding of the relationship between the practice of archaeology and the institutional context of that practice"
As only a minority of archaeology graduates seek to make their career in the profession (Collis and Hinton 1998, 15), it could be seen as unreasonable for professional archaeologists to demand that undergraduate curricula be redesigned to deliver vocational content. However, the benchmarking statement (QAA 2000) makes it clear that, in terms of knowledge and understanding, students should have an 'understanding of the relationship between the practice of archaeology and the institutional context of that practice', and an 'appreciation of the importance of the recovery of primary data through practical experience'. Amongst the skills that graduates should have, they will be equipped to 'practise core fieldwork techniques of identification, surveying, recording, excavation, and sampling'. Graduates should also have a number of transferable, generic skills, such as the ability to make critical appraisals, written and oral presentation, teamwork and ITC.
The skills thus learned are wide-ranging rather than specialised, and reflect the requirements of the majority of undergraduates following courses of archaeological study. But clearly gaining a first degree in archaeology is more than simply a rite-of-passage; while valuable transferable skills are learned, set in the context of studying life in the past, some practical skills are also learned. In terms of the IFA's perspective on training, courses that meet the benchmark can be considered ‘basic training’. The enhancement of those basic skills to allow graduates to realistically be able to join the workforce form the key issue of entry level training.
Last updated: Tue Sep 10 2002
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