Attributes and access
Dr John Coxhead examines the debate surrounding a ‘degree-only’ requirement for new recruits to the police service.
It is interesting that a letter supported by 16 police and crime commissioners (PCCs) has been handed to the Home Secretary to argue that not all police officers need degrees.
That amounts to more than a third of all PCCs arguing that the ten per cent abstraction costs of degree investment should not be the only way to onboard new recruits, particularly when it comes to veterans and older, more experienced applicants.
Matthew Scott, PCC for Kent, points to the potential barriers of the mandating of degree access for those who have already served as special constables or police community support officers and others with professional and life experience, particularly with many younger new starters now within policing, and often delivering the majority of core, front facing, public roles.
The PCCs suggest some flexibility between the Police Education Qualification Framework (PEQF) and the Initial Police Learning Development Programme (IPLDP) would benefit joining accessibility, and reduce operational abstraction time in some cases.
A Judicial Review of PEQF was prompted in 2019 by Lincolnshire Police, partly based on the abstraction costs of the College of Policing degree mandation, but was dismissed on a technicality concerning the timing of the objection and ongoing PEQF roll out (Police Professional, December 6th, 2019).
A costly barrier?
Twp of the main issues that are driving the recurrent concerns revolve around access, where representing the public remains a strategic priority; and cost, where the logistical drain of having officers away from the front line, compared with previous IPLDP, is, by direct comparison, higher.
Whether something is worth the cost investment is very much about what it is you are seeking to achieve; whether the return for investment is working well or not. Kadry and Lambert (2021) point to a communication issue with labels such as ‘degree’ and ‘academia’ and the awkward equation with real-life policing application at times. In reality, there should be no ‘them and us’ between theory and practice, as the two should be mutually complementary to develop professional policing practice, as happens in other professional development cultures, such as veterinary practice. And surely the recognition of a professional status, in a complex and demanding field, should be part of the mix too, in whatever form.
We should also acknowledge the wider context at play here too: that of complex service demands, public finances, police service attrition rates, salary vs cost of living packages, and a number of high-profile cases that have dented reputation and public confidence.
Equipping police professionals
Even within that wider context though, the key question should be what is policing for, and what do we need of police professionals? That in turn informs how to equip them to do their job.
A polarised debate over PEQF is not helpful for the progression of the police service, as it often involves a lack of focus on outcomes. There is an observable trend, focused on inputs, where supporters of PEQF promote the merits of the degree process but where some serving practitioners argue there is an over ‘academisation’ of policing, without a convincing rationale, and without respectful regard to existing professional practice.
The rationale for degrees that has been put forward by the College of Policing, informed by a narrative of professionalisation (Neyroud, 2010), is about ensuring every police professional is properly prepared and recognised for the complex and demanding role they perform. As this whole topic seems to be about as divisive as Brexit I should perhaps declare that, personally, I am in favour of good degree programmes, where they demonstrate long-term value both vocationally and intellectually. However, overall, I believe there is little argument from any quarter about the end point (being fit to police); only on how to get there.
The language of attributes
To be fair, it may be that both (polarised) ends of the argument – for degrees, and for a wider choice of approach – are right in their own ways. This is particularly so when we consider that much of what that recent letter by some PCCs advocates is a flexibility to reach the same end point: same destination, differing routes, informed by local context.
That plea, in itself, can be informed by getting back to the basics of policing needs and what degree outcomes offer. The connection point here should be what the universities call ‘Graduate Attributes’. Such attributes are commonly used across the world to anchor down the fundamental outcomes and benefits of being a graduate, something which, alas, some university programmes can lose sight of, ironically.
For example, these are taken from a variety of universities’ graduate attributes (for all degrees):
- Having an open and questioning and the ability to appreciate a range of perspectives;
- The ability to quickly locate and evaluate information;
- The ability to solve problems using a range of different approaches;
- The ability to communicate clearly and effectively in written and verbal forms;
- The ability to work in cooperation with others; and
- A professional approach including qualities of responsibility, integrity, empathy, accountability and self-regulation.
Do any of these seem irrelevant to policing?
Presuming we do not fall out with any of those graduate attributes as relevant goals to achieve, as a mind and skills set, should we also conclude that only a graduate can achieve these? Those attributes, to my mind, can be achieved in a number of ways (and indeed are often displayed by existing nongraduate police professionals) although a degree award is one way of independently validating them. Hence there is a justifiable tension in the current debate, as any notion that there is only one way to reach the desired attribute goals (to be ‘fit for purpose’ to undertake policing) is at best misleading.
Universities themselves often award honorary higher degrees to people who have never obtained a first (taught) degree and, despite never having attended university, have proven themselves highly competent and successful. The trend that the PCCs point to, concerns experienced (non-graduate) applicants, with a wealth of competence, being automatically barred; so should we not think about the fitness to police, and work back from there, rather than insist there is only one route to reach competent life skills?
Having an in-depth of knowledge in a chosen field is a component part of graduate attributes, and presumably the argument from the PCCs is that there is more than one way to learn what it is you need to police, and more than one way for the Police to get the people it needs to deliver its service, efficiently.
Teacher training, for example, used to take place before being offered a job, where you arrived qualified with teacher status at the school gates, but on probationary terms, to be further developed. Similar schemes exist in policing in Degree Holder Entry Programmes (DHEP), offering a form of conversion programme. Teaching later flexed to allow more learning on the job, which is similar to policing’s PEQF.
Having a myriad of ways to flexibly reach the required skills, which can be selected by those responsible for governing local policing services, is a reasonable suggestion.
If you flipped DHEP on its head, to complete theoretical elements first, then undertook a skills portfolio for the remainder, that might cut down abstraction issues. Alternatively, there might be differing accreditation points with options to prove existing skills and thereby avoiding the need to undertake aspects that were already deemed competent.
Some music colleges, for example, assess applicants on their instrument playing ability if they do not hold a graded certificate, allowing the College to verify competency skills there and then. American football scholarships offer similar talent qualifiers. Instead of binary selection centres just for course access, local forces or Universities could offer validation forums to test potential candidates against their existing core competency skills, with local weighting criteria if appropriate.
As a further option, you could have students achieve their initial certificate (which could be integrated into other degrees) and then pick a force to join to finish off their ‘stage two’, representing a form of IPLDP+.
The end game
The Peelian goal of representing the public served, as a core enabler for trust and legitimacy, means that effective recruitment and retention is vital. There should be no suggestion about diluting the quality of the skills required to police well, yet having as much opportunity for all to serve should also be of key importance. So, being able to recruit anyone who can meet the policing skills level required to do the job well should be part of that public consent framework.
There is no one size fits all but there is agreement on the end game – that we need good police professionals – at a time when policing has perhaps never faced so many challenges. My point is that we should focus on what we are trying to achieve and be open minded about how to best get there with agility, value for money, less polarity and, most importantly, some common sense.
Dr John Coxhead is Professor at the international Policing Innovation Enterprise and Learning (PIEL) Centre, hosted at the Royal Docks School of Business and Law, London.