Colin Feltham interviews Liz Ballinger about the threats to the future of counselling courses in further and higher education
Colin: Thanks for your very interesting and timely article on various problems of counselling training. Can I first ask you to say how you came to be involved in training and then why you wanted to research it?
Liz: For a number of years I worked as a lecturer in a further education college and was predominantly involved in teaching modern history to GCSE and A level students. While I enjoyed aspects of the work, I increasingly felt like part of an educational production line, rather than a partner in an educative process. To cut a long story short, picking up a flyer for a counselling certificate course led me to the first stages of becoming a trained counsellor. I was fortunate in that I was then able to move sideways to work in the college’s counselling service, which I subsequently went on to manage. In a parallel process, I also later became involved in delivering and subsequently managing the college’s counsellor training provision. I made the leap into the university sector in 2000 and have worked there ever since, in a variety of training-related roles.
There were mixed reasons for me wanting to research training. Practically, my role as university lecturer required me to undertake research and I was ideally placed to undertake a piece of insider research into trainers’ perceptions. Strategically, its educational focus meant that it could strengthen the research profile of the counselling department (which sat within the School of Education). Most importantly, I wanted to research an area that had personal and professional relevance. I have experienced the role as deeply rewarding but also complex and challenging. Moreover, I have the sense that training’s place within educational settings has become less rather than more secure over time. Statutory regulation was also a very hot issue at the time of its inception. In common with other trainers I knew, I was unsettled by its implications. I guess that my research was about providing a platform for rank-and-file trainers’ voices as well as opening up the whole area for debate and discussion.
Colin: You mention there being 350 courses in 2009. I wonder if you know what the current scene is like, even impressionistically? How many courses at what levels, at what range of institutions and with what students numbers? How many closures as against how many new courses? Does someone keep close tabs on all this?
Liz: BACP actually listed 1,200 courses of differing levels delivered by 350 providers, although I wouldn’t think that accurately reflects the total provision. The training field is so diverse in terms of settings, types and levels of provision, professional affiliations, validating bodies etc. I am not aware of anyone keeping ‘close tabs’ on the situation. I don’t think this is a product of my ignorance: if there is a source it is not well known. I wouldn’t really know where to start in terms of building up a comprehensive picture of current provision. I tend to hear developments via word of mouth – and then it’s generally news of closure or threatened closure. This may give a distorted picture. I am less likely to hear about new initiatives: as one version of the saying goes, good news is no news. What I can say is that the research I undertook into trainers’ perceptions revealed a wider sense of insecurity and threat to existing provision.
Colin: As you say, a number of good training programmes in higher education were closed down in the past few years – yours at Nottingham Trent University and my own at Sheffield Hallam University included. Also Roehampton is in the process of closing its undergraduate programme. Closures seem to be for various reasons – on academic and research grounds, for economic reasons (ELQs* hit us at Sheffield, for example) and sometimes due to conflicts. Are these coincidental, do you think, or should we suspect some sort of trend or conspiracy?
Liz: I don’t think these closures were all coincidental. While I would reject the notion of a conspiracy, I do think there is evidence of a trend manifesting itself in differing ways in individual settings. As I have said, I think we are increasingly vulnerable as a sector. The economic context is highly significant. So-called ‘new managerialism’ in the public sector has led to the imposition of market principles across a whole raft of public institutions. Huge funding cuts have led to austerity measures across the university sector. Programmes increasingly need to be seen to be contributing significantly to university or college finances by, for example, generating money through research or running profitable programmes. At Manchester, we are pushed to do both. A recent managerial cataloguing of training’s ‘areas for attention’ included our research profile, staffing costs and the large number of our students not completing the programme within the standard time frame. This points to the importance of managerial perceptions and, in particular, to an informed management understanding of training’s particular demands and nature. A lack of understanding and a loss of managerial support can lead to us being seen, on balance, as more trouble than we’re worth.
Colin: As you say, many academic luminaries do seem often to mistrust counselling courses and regard them as intellectually non-rigorous and weak on research. They can be seen as sitting between nursing training, say, which is statutorily required and very well funded, and alternative and complementary therapies, which are not. Does this match your view?
Liz: I would and wouldn’t agree with your positioning. On one level, I think nursing, counselling and alternative and contemporary therapies may all be viewed internally as non-rigorous and weak on research compared with other disciplines. As professional – or, rather, semi-professional – training programmes, they would all sit towards the bottom of the status hierarchy of disciplines. With that proviso, I think there are divisions drawn. Courses in alternative and complementary therapies attract the most substantial criticism. One critic described them as ‘a romp through almost every form of battiness known to humankind’ and they have been held responsible for damaging the international reputation of our universities. We escape lightly in comparison. However, economic factors again come into play. While nursing has worked hard in recent years to raise its academic credentials, its stronger position is probably, as you say, more a reflection of its well-funded, statutory nature. Without such a strong foundation, training programmes in counselling and alternative and complementary therapies are all vulnerable to the vagaries of wider economic forces.
Colin: There’s no getting away from the question of whether training is, or would be, better off outside further and higher education altogether. But students usually want the academic stamp of approval for CV and employment purposes, and even voluntary and private sector programmes mostly seek university validation. Can counselling training really be envisaged as freeing itself from the statutory education sector?
Liz: I don’t think so. I understand and am in sympathy with trainers’ belief that the statutory education sector impacts negatively on their capacity to construct and deliver training that best prepares students for counselling work. For quite understandable reasons, trainers can focus on the deficiencies of colleges and universities as settings for training and neglect to acknowledge their virtues. I would emphasise that they do provide important advantages such as easy access to research literature and the possibility to learn from other professional training courses, as well as the opportunity to demonstrate counselling’s worth via our contribution to other programmes. Our presence within universities allows us to develop our research profile and encourages the critical thinking vital to the health and progress of our sector. I could go on. Importantly, students want a training that will provide them with the credentials to compete effectively in the job market. The university sector can provide such credentials and, as you observe, a large number of training courses in the voluntary and private sector recognise this by pursuing university validation. As such, the autonomy of these organisations is limited by their need to conform to university quality assurance policies and procedures. However one views it, the counselling world has moved on and training has needed to move with it.
Colin: There has been some increase in further education foundation degrees in counselling, often recruiting younger students than used to be the case. Do you see this development as desirable?
Liz: I could be seen as sitting on the fence on this one but I would prefer to think I can see the arguments for and against. On the plus side, foundation degrees provide potential access to what one trainer called ‘natural’ counsellors who might fail to meet the criteria for entry onto a university-based postgraduate programme. They therefore have the potential to widen access, for instance, to working class people who might otherwise be excluded. As you say, younger students might also be attracted. While some might argue maturity to be an essential qualification for counsellors, younger entrants can bring a freshness of eye, the vitality of youth, as well as a contemporary relevance to what is a heavily middle-aged profession. I can, on balance, only welcome this. On the other side, I have been concerned throughout my career about the huge investment made by individuals to train as counsellors when measured against the limited employment opportunities. Foundation degrees potentially fuel this tension.
Colin: I think you hint at this, but could a reduction in counselling training courses be a blessing in disguise? Isn’t it true that too many people have trained in relation to too few jobs and too little client demand in private practice? Might this development not be regarded as a brutal clearing out by market forces of surplus provision?
Liz: As my last response indicates, I am concerned about the whole supply–demand issue. Again, though, I don’t think the answer’s simple. First, not all people come onto counsellor training courses with the intention of becoming counsellors. People can undertake the training to help them deal more effectively with the interpersonal aspects of their current role, say, as teachers, nurses or social workers. The qualification can be seen as helping promotion prospects or as a way of facilitating a sideways move into a more pastoral role. However, for those people who want to become counsellors, employment prospects are undoubtedly limited. Students regularly express their frustration at the lack of available work. Competition can be fierce for the jobs that are available and newcomers are not in a strong position. So yes, it can be argued that there is surplus provision but I can’t bring myself to advocate a ‘brutal clearing out by market forces’. Call me an old-fashioned socialist, but I would rather we look at how we could inject some notion of a ‘managed economy’ into the situation. For instance, we could at least open up discussion around what I understand to be BACP’s current policy of not placing limits on the number of courses that are awarded accredited status.
Colin: To take the most pessimistic scenario, we might imagine that potential postgraduate trainees have student loans that are already too much of a burden, that the current government’s austerity measures continue to squeeze funding for years to come, and counselling training shrinks significantly. How likely is such a scenario, do you think?
Liz: There is some very gloomy talk generally about the future of postgraduate provision and I think it highly likely that pressure will increase on counselling training programmes delivered at this level within the university sector. On a bad day, I do indeed feel very pessimistic about the future of training. However, although the diversity of provision brings its own problems, this might actually be our saving grace. Training provision at undergraduate or foundation degree level, for instance, may prove more resilient. In talking to other universities, training seems most secure where they have pursued a policy of developing a variety of provision pitched at a range of different levels, from certificate to doctorate.
Colin: And more optimistically, are there any signs of IAPT, regulation, accumulated evidence of effectiveness and supporters of counselling and psychotherapy converging to stabilise and even restore training to full health?
Liz: I’m not sure. I think the whole counselling field tends to be marked by division and I have a sense that some of the developments you mention are serving to expose or even deepen the divides. Lynne Gabriel, as past BACP Chair, talked of the ‘internecine fights’ unleashed by proposed state regulation. Theoretical schools can end up pitted against each other in a competition to prove their relative effectiveness. CBT’s strong research profile and its connection with IAPT have led to it attracting intense criticism from other theoretical schools. Conversely, the CBT trainers I interviewed regarded IAPT as a threat to the future of their training programmes. On the plus side, the rise of integrative and/or pluralistic approaches does provide some evidence of reconciliation within counselling and I do think that the research evidence is tipping in counselling’s favour generally, whatever the theoretical approach. As you say, although we might not always like the proposed solutions, mental health has become highlighted as an appropriate matter for public concern and action. I don’t know that I can manage optimism – I have already catalogued what I view as a range of substantial threats. However, I can acknowledge there are some grounds for optimism or at least signs of light in the tunnel.
Colin: Finally, is there any hard evidence that, in harsh economic times like the present, depression and anxiety increase, along with unemployment, job insecurity or dissatisfaction and poverty? And that maybe, just when there is greatest need for support, there is less funding for counselling services and training?
Liz: Yes there is hard evidence of the relationship between poverty and mental ill health. There is a social class gradient in mental health. Unemployment has a mental health toll not only on the individual but also on their families. Movements in suicide rates are connected with economic conditions. I do think that public spending cuts are leading to less funding for counselling services and training just at a time when they are most needed. I don’t think it’s just down to professional organisations to try to influence opinion and policy in the area; I think we all need to do what we can to maintain the ongoing health of training and services in our own area.
* The Government’s Equivalent & Lower Qualifications policy means that students who already have qualifications at that level will not get state funding for counselling courses.