Central and East European Studies in the UK

Author: George Blazyca


A review of the development in the subject area since the Second World War. Central and Eastern Europe is viewed as covering a geographic space from Poland to the Western Border of Russia, and from North to South towards the Balkans. While dedicated degree programmes are relatively few, modularisation has ensured that many Central and East European course units exist in UK universities.

Table of contents

Development of the subject

Central and East European Studies (C&EES) is understood here as a range of studies, predominantly related to contemporary historical, social, economic and political developments, focussing on a geographic area from the Oder-Neisse line separating Germany from Poland, eastwards to, but not including, Russia, and south towards the Balkans.

In UK higher education C&EES has a long and respected tradition even if the fortunes of this broad subject have been uneven. Perhaps more than in most other cases its popularity has been influenced by international relations and developments. At various times since the Second World War the subject was given a boost by the need to understand the 'other' - the alternative system to industrial capitalism - which happened at the same time to be an 'enemy'. Then, with the sudden and unexpected collapse of that system in 1989, interest in the region raced ahead, only to be overtaken in the mid-to-later 1990s by renewed attention to Western Europe. This is not to say that European Studies in its broader form, to which C&EES has always been a poor and distant relative, did well in UK higher education in the 1990s. On the contrary, the desire of UK governments to keep 'Europe' at arm's length is probably one reason for the current difficulties of mainstream European Studies in UK universities.

C&EES, alongside Russian Studies, has been the subject of several reviews since the Second World War. The first, in 1947, gave a boost to Slavonic languages in what was still an elitist university system. The second, in 1961, was immensely important to social sciences in that its author, Sir William Hayter, proposed that five units - Birmingham, Glasgow, Oxford, Swansea and the London University School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES, now part of UCL) - be strengthened to become national centres of excellence in Russian and/or East European Studies. Those five 'Hayter centres' formed the bedrock of the UK's specialist provision in C&EES, a role they fulfilled with great success for a considerable period.

If the 1961 report injected optimism, the 1979 report with its emphasis on rationalisation (especially of Russian language) was much gloomier. By a quirk of history, just as Russian language rationalisation was proceeding the Thatcher/Reagan focus on the Soviet Union as 'Evil Empire' demanded more sophisticated understanding of the region, its social and economic system and its dynamics (or lack of them).

Communism's eventual collapse in 1989 generated huge interest in a new subject and academic stream - Post-Communist Transition or Transformation. Individual academics responded as best they could but it became apparent that the C&EES academic base was greatly depreciated and demanded new investment. The last report into the subject area (HEFCE, 1995) argued for such investment and was partially successful in winning it as the 'HEFCE new blood' lectureships (33 in all) became the subject of competition between institutions. When HEFCE awarded the 33 lectureships (SHEFC should have made its own contribution additionally but baulked at the cost) with strings (universities to guarantee continuation after HEFCE's three-year subsidy was over) many UK universities, under immense financial pressures, found the offer not quite so tempting. But at least the 1995 HEFCE report was upbeat and helped once again restore a measure of optimism. It noted that in light of dramatically changed international circumstances the 'patchy' and sometimes 'precarious' provision in some of the region's languages was a serious problem. But it went further and recommended a new approach to studying the region, focussing on 'triangulation', the need to combine languages with traditional disciplines (social science/management/humanities) and in-depth area knowledge.

The state of the field

First, on the supply-side considerable continuity is evident. Following the UCAS trail in Central European Studies takes the prospective student to Slavonic and East European Studies at Glasgow, to an impressively wide suite of BA degrees at SSEES/UCL, to Russian with Central and East European Studies at Durham and an innovative International Business with Central and East European Studies at Greenwich. Picking up a slightly different scent from UCAS, in East European Studies, leads to a similar range of destinations - Glasgow, Durham and SSEES/UCL with Nottingham and Sussex in Russian and East European Area Studies.

Second, the 'feel' in the subject community, something that the UCAS Directory cannot capture, is at the same time less and more encouraging. It is less encouraging because most dedicated C&EES degree programmes recruit very few students and some, both undergraduate and postgraduate, have folded entirely in recent years. It is more encouraging because C&EES still commands substantial interest: the subject has been displaced but it has not disappeared - it has simply been absorbed elsewhere.

Third, there is evidence of some greater interest in 'triangulation' (although the term is rarely used) supported by the modularisation that is the predominant feature in contemporary course architecture in UK higher education. Modularisation means, on the positive side, that more students can gain access to units with a C&EES focus and such units can be popular choices. But at the same time, it has to be acknowledged that the broad aims of the HEFCE 1995 subject report have not in general been achieved. A particular weakness is that as student interest in even mainstream European languages wanes it also tugs down Slavonic languages. The capacity of UK universities to mount such language provision seems to be becoming ever more limited and instead of triangulation what we see is a bi-polar provision resting on discipline and area alone. Many individual academics responded to the collapse of communism and the end of 'Soviet Studies' by offering area studies specialisms to mainstream social sciences degrees, to undergraduate Business Studies programmes and to MBA and professional type courses.

A speedy survey to gather background material for this article suggests that modules in a variety of C&EES themes do very well, are popular with students and enrich the joint honours provision that is increasingly typical. Examples include: Economic Change in Central and Eastern Europe, East European Politics, Central and Eastern Europe - The End of Division between East and West?, all offered at the University of the West of England; Economies in Transition at Heriot-Watt; Civil Society and the State in East Central Europe with The Economic and Social History of Central and Eastern Europe, 1918-1989 at Glasgow; The Development of the East European Economies and East European Politics at Paisley; Central European Politics and Comparative Democratisation at Essex; The Sociology of Modern Europe - Eastern Europe at Strathclyde. Perhaps surprisingly, given its capacity to reach out to students, the Open University has, so far at least, little in the way of C&EES although an element will figure in a new course proposal, Culture and Identities in a Contested Continent.

Fourth, another feature worth noting is a certain amount of change across the institutional landscape in C&EES in the UK. There seems little doubt that SSEES/UCL, much helped by its London location, remains the leading centre but, at the same time, the field has opened up with adventurous attempts to respond to perceived demand in areas that combine the (until recently) ever popular Business Studies degree programmes with C&EES as in Greenwich's International Business with C&EES. Some institutions have 'dipped in and out'. Clearly, much depends also on staff, their interests and, more worryingly, institutional schemes for early retirement (the staff age profile in C&EES is likely to be fairly 'elderly'). Returning to the exceptional case of SSEES/UCL it is interesting that of three programmes in the social sciences (BA Contemporary East European Studies, BA Economics and Business with East European Studies and BA Politics with East European Studies - responding to a 'pure' area studies, an economics/business and a politics focus) it is the business stream that appears to be most popular, at present, with students.

Fifth, at the postgraduate level the provision of dedicated C&EES taught Masters' programmes seems to have thinned considerably in recent years. The trend has probably been towards development of more general 'MA European Studies' type courses with opportunities to take specialist C&EES modules as part of the programme or to use the dissertation element for area specialism. Thus at Liverpool the MA in 'Twentieth Century History' has a strong Russian and Eastern European strand. Heriot Watt University feeds a 'Transition economies' course into the collaborative Scottish doctoral programme in Economics. The Essex MA in European Politics has a C&EES element.

Prospects for the future

The evidence suggests that C&EES is alive and reasonably well although there are few dedicated programmes and these remain, by and large, in the Hayter centres. Most C&EES provision has become modularised at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. It is to be found in a wide range of degree programmes from single subject specific (Economics, Sociology, Politics, History and so on) to the multidisciplinary, joint honours or combined studies type programmes (European Studies, International Relations, etc.). The 'triangulation' recommended by the last major report into the subject has emerged in very few institutions. Successful triangulation probably requires a degree of central steer from the funding councils that, in the mid 1990s, was exceedingly unfashionable. Nevertheless, as financial pressures on institutions intensify, there may be room for greater regional co-ordination in C&EES in the future - but, if so, who will lead it? The case for triangulation remains strong but it is likely to meet another barrier in the medium term in shortage of staff with C&EES area studies specialisation and experience.

In the post 1989 world an immediate sense of euphoria in Europe - that the continent would quickly become 'round and whole' - has given way to stark realisation that after the all-night party on the Berlin Wall a lot of expensive cleaning up had to be done and no-one wanted to pay for it. Interest in the 'other' Europe waned with only the enthusiasts left to keep it alive. There were however some notable successes. The PHARE/TEMPUS programme promoted East-West partnerships in curriculum develop-ment and then the Socrates scheme permitted more durable channels for student exchange. By way of example the University of Paisley, not a Hayter centre, was able to set up a successful student exchange programme with the Akademia Ekonomiczna in Kraków, Poland, giving Business Studies students a chance to spend a semester studying in central Europe, something that would have been impossible in the pre-1989 world. That scheme, however, meets a problem shared by all UK institutions - hugely imbalanced 'student trade' - we can all import much more than we export.

C&EES has known good and bad times. In the UK at present, while there are successes to report, times, frankly, could be better. Perhaps when and if the UK government abandons its dispositions of mild irritation with 'Europe', European Studies and languages will once again become a more popular option for UK students. C&EES would certainly benefit from such developments. Something else is about to happen that should also underpin greater interest in C&EES - the next wave of EU enlargement. This surely means that, however slowly, the EU's centre of gravity will shift eastwards. UK universities with a C&EES base, if prepared, could do well out of that, opening an exciting area studies dimension to a new generation of students.


HEFCE (1995), Review of Former Soviet and East European Studies.

UCAS (2002), Directory 2002 Entry, also available at http://www.ucas.com

QAA (2002), Subject Benchmark Statement - Area Studies, also available at http://www.qaa.ac.uk

Related links

The best network resource for C&EES academics as well as postgraduate students is the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES) whose annual conference at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge each Easter is the biggest event of its type in Europe:


The University Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES) is another valuable networking resource for staff and students. UACES mounts regular conferences and workshops as well as an annual research conference and a research students' conference.


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