Police education in the university classroom: Let’s be careful of too many assumptions

I recently had the great pleasure of attending and presenting at POLCON5, which took place on the 3rd and 4th September at Teeside University. Amongst a broader conversation about improving knowledge transfer between higher education institutions (HEIs) and police forces, a smaller one was to be found around the impact of foundation and undergraduate degree programmes as a means of police service pre-join. I found a great deal of value in much of what was said on the matter – it was particularly useful to hear about how other programmes had been designed, and how partnerships had been maintained. It encouraged some soul-searching about my own involvement on pre-join programmes, and left me to reflect upon a number of assumptions that I had previously held to be truths.

The concept of police education within higher education (HE) settings is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a new phenomenon. Anyone who has worked in police education will know that programmes, whilst of a small number, were to be found long before Peter Neyroud recommended the strengthening of HE/police partnerships and the diversification of pre-join pathways in his 2011 Review of Police Leadership and Training. A highly contested reduction in force budgets and the emergence of a wider professionalisation agenda have merely accelerated the proliferation of programmes on offer.

The extent to which the professionalisation agenda is satisfied by the presence of such programmes is a matter of continuing debate. Many of us have heard (or may even partially be of the opinion) that academic achievement is no predictor of a competent and assured officer. Others are skeptical of an agenda which very obviously shifts training and education costs from the organisation to the individual. As programme providers, our response to these arguments can naturally be rather defensive. My colleagues and I repeat more times than we’d care to admit: “But, we provide so much more than just training!” Naturally I walked into POLCON5 a firm advocate of this view and left of much the same belief, albeit followed by a lingering shadow of self-doubt as I couldn’t help but contemplate – how do I know that we are a force for positive change?

Academic institutions have an obligation to test the extent to which some of the common beliefs about the contribution of HEIs are accurate. Why? Because, in increasing numbers, policing scholars have identified that a great deal of police practice is assumed and remains untested. “That must change!” we chant, and rightly so. But if we are to build and sustain such a movement in the science and testing of operational police practice, then we have also to look to our own back yard. We have to acknowledge and confront the fact that many assumptions about what HE can contribute to the development of new and prospective police recruits are just that – untested assumptions. In two areas in particular – improved workforce diversity and the eradication of undesirable elements of police occupational culture – initial findings from a recent study of our own FdA Policing cohort paint a cautionary picture. More information on the study can be found at the College of Policing Research Map: http://www.college.police.uk/en/21066.htm.

As the proliferation of pre-join programmes has taken place, so to has the belief that the existence of such programmes will contribute to increased police workforce diversity. I have heard this claim made on countless occasions, and have rarely felt it necessary to question it. Upon what evidence though, is such a claim asserted? Is an evidence-base founded upon greater diversity in overall university student numbers really all that helpful? A closer look would suggest not. The demographic statistics from our sample cohort on the Foundation Policing programme at Buckinghamshire New University reveal that 78% were male (N=32). This represents a higher proportion than that of the Thames Valley Police constable workforce, which as of March 2014 stood just below 70% (of a 4346 total constable workforce). Meanwhile just over 90% of the sample cohort defined themselves as ‘white British’. This represents just a 3% decrease from the Thames Valley Police constable workforce as of March 2014. Certainly, no grand claim of improved diversity can be made from such numbers.

In a similar fashion the suggestion that the involvement of HEI’s will aid in the eradication of elements of occupational culture considered undesirable requires further scrutiny. As their time on the Foundation Policing programme passed, many of our sample cohort admitted to becoming withdrawn from friendship groups formed of students enrolled upon other programmes. Many more increasingly spoke of others not ‘understanding’ the unique pressures they faced, or the responsibility they carried. Most startlingly, a large number of the cohort withdrew from the University’s social facilities, adopting their most often-used seminar room as a place where they could socialise and discuss the job. Sound familiar? The environment may have changed, but cultural notions of group isolation and ‘us vs them’ still manifest alongside more desirable notions of group solidarity and mission. Clearly, this wasn’t written into our script.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There is a great deal of good work to be found in the design and delivery of pre-join programmes. Some examples were raised throughout POLCON5. De Montfort University’s Steve Christopher spoke excellently on the potential of the academic environment to facilitate the development of a critical and constructive lens to professional reflection. Within our own study, respondents from the sample cohort spoke of the benefits of an academic understanding of relevant socio-political events informing a belief that ‘not all bureaucracy was bad’. These are reasons to be optimistic about the potential of such programmes as an effective form of pre-join pathway.

If I’m going to shed this shadow of lingering self-doubt though, I’ll need more than optimism. I’ll need knowledge, from a significant evidence base. Just as we increasingly demand the scientific testing of what works within operational practice, it’s high time we considered testing what works within our own.

Sean Butcher is a Lecturer at the Institute of Professional Policing, Buckinghamshire New University, and a Research Fellow at the Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care, Northwest London. He tweets at @Sean__Butcher. Email: Sean.Butcher@bucks.ac.uk

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