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Conversations on the way to the Rally of the Impossible Professions, London 20th September, 2008
Stephen Frosh in conversation with Janet Low
Stephen Frosh is currently Pro Vice Master and Professor of Psychology at Birkbeck College where he has worked for over 20 years. He is author of many books and articles including the Politics of Psychoanalysis (London MacMillan, 1987) which I took with me when I visited him in early April, 2008. I was aware that in the upcoming academic year he will be leaving the Faculty of Science and the Psychology Department to head up the new School of Psychosocial Studies in the Faculty of Arts, so I asked him to say something about his experience of the teaching quality audit, the RAE, and the university review, so that we could think about how this has changed what gets done in the College.
Stephen Frosh: OK, well I'm Pro Vice Master of the College here, and I chaired the College Quality Assurance Committee. In that sense, I'm responsible jointly with the Registrar for the Quality of the College's academic provision. Prior to taking on that role in this institution, I was Vice Dean of the Tavistock Clinic at the time when they were being subjected to institutional audit through their links with the University of East London. That was an interesting experience because apart from the general incursion of audit culture into the NHS through the 1990s, there was also a very specific clash between the kinds of teaching that the Tavistock was interested in - experiential teaching - and the kinds of things that are required to pass an institutional audit. And then there's the RAE and its impact particularly on psychology, especially on critical and inter-disciplinary thinking.
I've been at Birkbeck since 1979, part-time for a good deal of that because I worked for the NHS as well, and I've seen a lot of things during this time. In the past some of the teaching was terrible, and some of the organisation of courses was chaotic. There had been some neglect of the student experience. So there was a sort of impulse to make things clearer: to make it clearer to students what they could expect from academics, and to tell academic staff what is required to make a good teaching experience. The problem is that the models used for implementing improvement are often at variance with creative teaching and learning. They are mostly defensive models which check the paper work around programmes, rather than really carefully looking at what goes on, particularly interpersonally, in the teaching situation. Learning from a person, from the exchange of ideas with a person (which is characteristic of the Tavistock style) is very difficult to maintain in this audit culture - this has been pushed aside in favour of the rather bureaucratic aspects of teaching.
But there's more sense of empowerment of students now than there was 20 years ago. Although this is more in terms of rights, duties, and contracts, rather than in terms of quality of experience, which is an issue.
Experiential teaching is what really interests me. Using group teaching, less organised classes, more chaotic environment, more spontaneous techniques than the normal audit model allows for - and this has been very well received by students: they feel more concentrated on because everything happens much more in the moment. It is harder to do, and I don't support it all the time, but it can work. It doesn't fit well with the current model, yet it works.
Academics have become intimidated by the audit culture, but it doesn't have to be like this. There's an awful lot of counting we've had to do: counting students, doing whatever you can to retain students in order to obtain funding (this is part of the broader issues of the way universities themselves are constrained particularly by HEFCE). This puts constraints on freedom of universities to do what they should be doing. Nevertheless, basically it is the academic staff who control the auditing. We have to do auditing: to inspect our programmes in a four-yearly cycle of internal review. Then the submission of each school is looked at by a panel, and so on. All those things have to happen, and if they don't happen then the audit agency make it happen: they look for these processes. Questions about how we know what is good and bad teaching, how we take account of what students say, all these things are very much at our disposal. So really it is about taking control of that process, and trying to think it through in a way that people can make sense of in terms of their work.
Let me give you a parallel from my own background. My group run some collaborative programmes with psychotherapy institutions - the Institute of Group Analysis have a Master's programme with us. Like many psychotherapy organisations, there was a lot of concern about this collaboration its consequences. They were worried that they would not be able to teach in a way they thought was appropriate with psychotherapists. They were particularly concerned with the written assessment, because this is not what they think analysis is about. But I don't think there is anyone there now who still believes that. What we did was work together and put together an assessment package that was built on the clinical assessment they already do with their students.
My point is that if you start by stressing it as a terrible thing, then it's going to turn out problematic. But if you realise that you've got quite a lot of control over it, and if you understand what you're doing and do it in a way that gets it through committee structures, and if you put it in ways that are appropriate, then it can work.
I think for instance here at Birkbeck, our audit culture is still laborious and bureaucratic but it's much better than it used to be partly because the people involved are trying to think how to make it work. We should not be intimidated.
The person I teach most with is just coming out of the probationary period and she had to do the teaching certificate (a lot of people complain about it). She was observed and assessed doing some teaching with me of psychoanalysis to psychology students. What we did was to work in small groups and have an observed conversation: unstructured, unprepared, responsive to students - it was risky. The rather tight-looking observer from the Life Long Learning department gave her a distinction! There was a willingness from the observer, and an unwillingness from us to be completely phased. I'm not denying the power of audit here, but there is something that people can use more. It's not quite as bad as it has to be, we must take hold of its power.
The RAE experience however, is quite different. This may be specific to the psychology department. We are just about to leave it and together with a small group we will form a new school of psychosocial studies in the Faculty of Arts. Psychology has always been an ambiguous place to be, and an ambivalent place to be. It attracts a lot of students and has status, and it controls a lot of access to vocational kinds of work. But it is also a very regressive, reactionary discipline, and has been since its inception. But, over a 20-year period it has been possible for me to forge a place in it. I've started up psychotherapy trainings, taught psychoanalysis, written books like that one [pointing to The Politics of Psychoanalysis]. Up until the 2001 RAE it was ok but since the RAE 2008 there's been a real hardening. For instance, after the 2001 RAE the panel wrote a report, as all panels are required to do, and they expressed a concern about what was happening in social psychology. They saw it being split between critical discursive psychology and more traditional experimental psychology, and becoming a fragmenting discipline. There was an impetus to try to do something about that split. But as far as I know no critical psychology is going into the 2008 RAE anywhere in the country. It is all going into sociology. We were excluded from psychology 2008, on the grounds that neuro-science needs millions of pounds of grants to do their work. Without that money they can't do their work because they need the equipment, and the equipment costs millions of pounds. In order to get that money they need to be in a highly scored department. They were worried that the conservative panels would not like the critical theoretical work of my group, and that this would bring down the grade. They were very polite, you know "we value your work very highly, but …" but they really don't value our work: the 'real' work is the neuro-scientists'.
What happened then was a split in the RAE submission, and I'm cutting a very long and painful story short, but in the end I agreed to chair the Sociology submission, and we gathered up people from all over the college who didn't fit where they were, and we put together a very good submission, nearly 30 people. But in the end, we were split from Psychology. The department realised where the big money was, and they decided that's where they wanted to be.
What will be done to measure success in the new phase, the Research Evaluative Framework, will be a metrics based way of assessment. They are going to evaluate on citation indices and research income. If you are a critical social psychologist publishing in marginal journals, you will barely register on the scale. If you are a neuro-scientist getting huge grants you will. This has pushed psychology backwards to its most biologistic mode - to the brain which can be measured. Its very interesting work but it distorts the field. It's heavily reductionist, and in that sense it is politically reactionary. I see that as not just a product of audit culture, but of the interest in the material, in things that can be measured. I think the consequences are that psychology students are no longer going to receive critical input, and this will be true throughout the country.
Something about audit culture pushes towards a certain kind of scrutiny, which is always reactionary, but measurable is not necessarily valuable. It's dangerous. There's a level of resistance, though. I mean academics are not the least powerful people - they can have a level of resistance, particularly about the auditing of teaching. One safeguard is the student experience: they know when they've had a good experience.
I've had to manage a kind of review about appraisals. I convened a working group asking academics what they wanted. One Professor, who is usually a really helpful guy, absolutely refused to participate. It's a position of integrity, and he's got a good reputation. He thought it a total waste of time, but I think it's worth doing and I've got a group together that is willing to think through what an academic might want in order to support their work.
JL: Michael Power points out that one thing about the audit culture is that it fosters an environment in which people spend their time trying to work out how to become better audit subjects, and neglect the work that they were originally employed to do.
SF: The sheer amount of record keeping we have to do is completely mad. It is extremely burdensome. The record keeping has become more important than the thing we do. This is really pernicious. We spend a lot of time trying to reduce the demands of audit - I see myself as a kind of buffer between an external audit and the people who work here. It's about containing the anxiety. My audit load is very large and there is a vast amount of record keeping that is pernicious. We try to cut it down - even a good review turns out to be just not worth the amount of paper and anxiety (all that scrabbling around for old committee minutes).
One thing we hadn't done was to review the way we review. I thought it was worth setting up a process of reviewing internal review. This also came from a complaint from the head of school of philosophy. She said, 'we've had a very good review, but it just wasn't worth doing, it's just mad.' We came back with a set of proposals about how we could use the web site, and we've implemented a new system.
So, I'm not talking about ideal practice but you just have to have a system in place so the quality assurance agency doesn't just come down on you. It's not going to go away. The government is not going to stop. The students now pay for their courses: they are also going to want to know.
When the Government reorganised itself last autumn (when Gordon Brown took over) Higher Education was taken out of the Department of Education and is now part of the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills. The name tells you a lot. A lot of money has been taken out of the Arts, because 'Art doesn't increase skills' The notion of education as 'a good' has disappeared. The idea that education is something that people might invest time and energy in because it makes a difference to the lives and aspirations of citizens, people - that idea has been ditched by the government. That is part of audit culture. It is only worth doing if you see the benefits of it. Here's the link with materiality. That is Government policy. Government language. The language of the Leach Report is targets; targets for education. It's all about skills: re-skilling, up-skilling. Participation is now about giving people a range of skills. Of course it's hard to dispute, but, it's not quite the point, and it is certainly not the only point. What needs to be critiqued is the notion that universities are only there to service the economy.
At Birkbeck we teach a lot of people in their 50s and 60s. They have not got a long working life in front of them. Does that mean we should stop teaching them? For some people it changes their lives. This is un-measurable.
JL: Marilyn Strathern gave a good example of un-measurable, she said there had been a question asked about what makes Cambridge so good. It turned out that no-one could really say what it was - the complexity and layers of history couldn't be easily reduced. But instead of thinking that perhaps this had something to do with it, people panicked and ran around trying to show what it was that was good about the university. There is a real problem here.
SF: yes, but it's a difficult one. The very simple answer to why Cambridge is so good is because of privilege. I'm mixed here; of course you can totally demolish something with this audit culture, but, on the other hand the reason Cambridge works so well is because it's based on privilege. I would like to know much more about the process that Oxford and Cambridge use to select students. There is something valuable about public scrutiny.
JL: Is there still time for you to say a little about the new project
SF: We are a small group, which grew out of the last RAE - people doing critical research across the college who didn't fit into the other categories. We are trying to examine the psychosocial rather than simply to do psychology with social bits added on, it's an exciting move.
JL: Thank you.
Janet Low Blog