Are Cambridge’s dual honours degrees too big for their boots?

A hopeless attempt to modernise an outdated institution


Whilst Cambridge is certainly an institution defined by its adherence to tradition, in recent years the university has dipped its toe into dual honours degrees.

However, as an HML student I can certainly tell you this change isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Declining applications? What declining applications?

Despite the subject having taken other universities by storm, it was not until 2017 that Cambridge started accepting students for the History & Modern Languages and History & Politics Triposes.

Rather than drive to reform the outdated Tripos structure, the introduction of the dual honours Historical Triposes in 2017 was initially inspired by a steady decline in History and MML applications, whilst HSPS applications were in unprecedented demand.

Whilst it may initially appear that this strategy has worked in increasing applications to History degrees, with combined applications for History, HML, and HisPol hitting 1,037 in 2022, there appears to have been little thought put into how the courses would actually be run.

However, there is much higher demand for the History & Politics Tripos than for HML (Image Credit: author’s own screenshot).

Communication problems

The fundamental issue with the dual honours History courses is the lack of communication between departments. Although the courses were introduced by the History faculty, the HML course is primarily overseen by the MMLL department, whilst HisPol is run by the History department.

This division means that there is not only little cohesion between the two dual honours courses, but also that the History department takes little responsibility for the courses which were created to rescue their application numbers.

Lacking communication between these different departments is the core issue for the Cambridge dual honours courses. Students on these courses are often left in the dark regarding information about required modules and deadlines, with DOSes and supervisors being left to fill in the gaps.

The forgotten child of the history faculty

Despite the issues with the dual honours’ courses, there has been some attempt to rectify the initial problems with the courses.

Although the HML initially only accepted applicants for post-A-level French, German, Russian, and Spanish, as well as ab initio Russian, the course now also accepts applicants for ab initio German, Portugese, Italian, and Spanish. This indicates an increasing desire for inclusivity and encouragement of more applications in the face of declining entries for language A-levels. 

However, there is still a long way to go until these degrees feel fully integrated into the University’s culture. Although the History Tripos has recently undergone intense restructuring, first-year History & Politics students are still required to sit the Historical Argument and Practice Paper, even though this has been replaced for single-honours students.

While it may appear on paper that the faculty is attempting to bring the dual honours courses into line with the traditional Tripos, many HML-ers and HisPol-ers still feel somewhat isolated from their departments and are unsure of which department to go to with their issues.

Love having two DOSes (Image Credit: author’s own screenshot)

Historically outdated

The problems with the History & Modern Languages and History & Politics courses could possibly be attributed to the University’s outdated educational standards as a whole.

Like I was told when I first arrived at Cambridge, this university runs on emails. Whilst students at other universities have well-publicised deadlines and centralised teaching, it is often hit or miss whether information will actually be relayed to Cambridge students in a timely manner.

As indicated by the lack of confirmation for the IHT coursework deadline for History students until just nine days before the work was due, Cambridge faculties often seem reluctant to admit that the world doesn’t revolve around them.

Better late than never I guess (Image Credit: author’s own screenshot)

Is this well-justified or a symptom of a centuries-old reputation which the university can no longer live up to?

Hope for the future

Whilst Cambridge certainly has some catching up to do in terms of modern teaching standards, the introduction of the dual honours courses certainly offers a glimpse of hope that the university may be breaking from its archaic roots.

For a university which is obsessed with sticking to tradition, the HML and HisPol degrees certainly seem to be a step in the right direction towards coming into line with other high-ranking universities which were founded within the last three centuries.

Allowing for more diverse paper choices and more well-rounded individuals, these degrees could be a sign of future change in the university’s academic attitude. Furthermore, since the introduction of the dual honours courses, Cambridge has also announced the foundation of a Design course for entry from 2023.

On the whole, whilst the History & Modern Languages and History & Politics Triposes have not yet overcome their teething problems, they certainly offer hope for the breaking down of archaic and outdated attitudes to learning.

The problem might not be that dual honours degrees are too big for their boots, but that the boots just haven’t been worn in yet.

Feature Image Credit: Shreya Gudka

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