Thoughts on Psychology

The changing face of psychology degrees

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In Tyson, Jones & Elcock I argue that the discipline of psychology is shaped, in terms of what it investigates and how, by social context, including sources of funding. We’re about to see this in action within UK psychology, following the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review and the Brown review of Higher Education. These two developments will have a significant impact in the shape of British, or at least English, higher education generally, and psychology degree syllabuses particularly. This in turn affects the views of psychology of the next generation of psychologists, and so the way psychology will be conducted going forward.

There has long been a disagreement within parts of psychology about whether psychology should be a science, and if so what kind of science psychology should be. Historically the dominant view has been that psychology should aspire to the status of a natural science, and its methods and theories have developed accordingly. This emphasises positivism, reductionism, and the search for universal nomothetic laws to explain human behaviour. Against this, as far back as Windelbrand and Wundt some have argued that psychology should be a distinctly social science, with an emphasis on interpretive understanding, so Geisteswissenschaft rather than Naturwissenschaft. There has recently been an increasing recognition of the peculiarly reflexive nature of psychology, and with it an increased awareness of the need to consider it a social, or at least human, science, rather than aspiring to the natural science model. (The historical trends are discussed in Jones & Elcock; the modern recognition of reflexivity is at the heart of Tyson, Jones & Elcock.) However, in Britain at least this recent trend looks likely to be set back by recent developments in Higher Education.

The recently announced Comprehensive Spending Review posits significant changes to the funding of Higher Education in England. In particular, it proposes the withdrawal of all public support for courses in social sciences, arts and humanities; and the maintenance of such support only for courses in hard sciences, technology, education and medicine (so called STEM subjects). The argument for this is that only STEM courses bring direct economic benefits, and public money shouldn’t be wasted on courses without such benefits. This ignores the social capital – in terms of culture, human development, the foundation of civilisation – that inheres in the University system. Higher Education should be seen as a public good, and at least in part funded as such, as it has been for these past many years. Unfortunately those days are apparently gone, public financing of this huge amount of social capital being jettisoned to pay for the mistakes of the banking sector, which apparently escapes unscathed. We should be grateful that the British Museum isn’t similarly being crucified, so that at least some public support for culture remains, although the same economic vs culture argument could be made for removing public funding from that institution and similar. Still, that’s by the by. The impact of these changes on psychology will be significant, since it is not seen or funded as a STEM subject for the most part. British degrees are funded according to four bands, to reflect the differential costs of courses. Medicine is in band A, attracting the most public funding, and most hard sciences are in band B, attracting less than band A but more than others. Humanities courses are in band B, which attracts less. Currently, psychology is funded as band C, receiving more than humanities courses to cover the costs of research labs and equipment. In future band C funding will be removed, meaning not only that psychology courses lose public support; they lose more support than some other courses making them particularly expensive for Universities to offer. Something will have to give.

It’s impossible to predict what effect these finding changes will have on Universities, but we can rehearse the possibilities. One possibility is that many Universities decide that psychology courses are uneconomic to run, despite their healthy recruitment, because in future they will be funded by student fees in the same way as cheaper courses that don’t need to pay for laboratory work. The current resource requirements set by the British Psychological Society for courses seeking the Graduate Basis for Chartership are a particular problem here – the required resources can’t be afforded without either public support or higher fees. A second possibility is that psychology courses change to try to attain the status – in the Government’s eyes – of hard sciences, and so retain public funding. This will have the effect of cementing the view of psychology as a natural science discussed above, retarding the recognition of psychology as a reflexive, human science. A third possibility is that a split will appear within psychology courses, with some BPS accredited courses emphasising their natural science credentials and charging high fees; and other courses reducing the emphasis on lab work in order to charge lower fees. The former institutions are likely to be the ones that can sustain high fees and afford a degree of cross subsidy, and so will be the richer, higher status institutions. The latter are likely to be newer institutions of lower status. When high status institutions emphasise psychology as a natural science, and lower status institutions downplay this, then we can expect that the natural science approach to psychology will attain an even higher status than it has now, again retarding the reflexive human science view. A sign of this is in a survey on the future of undergraduate psychology being conducted by the Higher Education Academy’s Psychology Network, which asks in part whether there should be more differentiation and specialisation between psychology degrees.

The changes to Government funding arrangements then seem likely to reinforce the view of psychology as a natural science. However, these changes go hand in hand with the recommendations of the Browne review of Higher Education, particularly in that public support for HE will be replaced with the fee mechanism laid out by Browne. Discussion of the Browne review has concentrated on fees, and Universities are gratefully clutching at this straw to replace the funding lost to bail out the bankers. However, as this analysis shows, the Browne report is about much more than funding, and envisages the reshaping of Higher Education along market lines, on the assumption that such a market in HE would work like the perfect markets described in old economics textbooks, even though modern economics (with insights from psychology!), everyday experience, and the example of the banking crisis show that markets don’t actually work that way. This market model emphasises economic benefits over social capital, as with the Government spending review – the two clearly inform each other – and also the operation of market mechanisms as the determinant of undergraduate provision. Market forces will determine what degrees will be offered, and what those degrees will consist of. This could go one of two ways for psychology. On the one hand, student satisfaction is seen as the main outcome that will drive degree choice by applicants and hence degree survival and content. Most students dislike psychology’s heavy emphasis on research methods and statistics, so one might expect that this change will reduce demand for natural science heavy courses in psychology. That seems to me unlikely. Instead, applicant choices are likely to be increasingly swayed by the perceived status of institutions, as a very poor analog for student experience; and by the perceived economic benefits of a degree in terms of job opportunities. This again would suggest psychology provision will be dominated by richer Universities offering BPS accredited courses, since such accreditation will be necessary to pursue a career in psychology, and psychology will increasingly be studied only by those seeking such a career.

Taking these two changes together, I would expect to see – though I very much hope I’m wrong – a contraction in psychology ,with fewer students choosing from a smaller choice of courses, and those courses emphasising a BPS accredited, natural science heavy curriculum. As part of this, there’ll be an increased focus on cognitive psychology and neuropsychology, and on particular areas of applied work. The insights gained from other approaches to psychology, and the personal benefits to be gained by studying psychology for reasons other than professional practice, will be greatly diminished.

Clearly there’s a political point being made here, but that’s incidental to the main argument: the content and nature of psychology degrees will change, meaning that psychologists will change, not as a result of a progressive refinement of psychological science, but as a result of policy and funding decisions by the Government. As argued in Tyson, Jones & Elcock, psychology is very much shaped by its social context.

 

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