Liz Ballinger fears for the survival of counselling training in higher and further education
Insecurity of tenure
As counsellors throughout the UK are well aware, the past decade has been an unsettling time for their profession. This is due to a range of factors: constraints on public and private spending; the increased demand for evidence-based practice in the public and, increasingly, the private sectors; the furore about the proposed implementation of statutory regulation; the launch of IAPT in the NHS. These developments have not only opened up some fundamental divisions within counselling; they have also engendered a sense of threat not only to employment opportunities for counsellors but also, at points, to the profession’s continuing existence.
The term ‘crisis’ has been used. As one therapist commented last year in this journal: ‘... it seems to me that the crisis is not impending but already well under way. I suspect former practitioners might share this view, and managers of services who have lost their jobs in the NHS and NHS-funded voluntary services.’1
What has featured less prominently in public debate is the state of counsellor training, which has been similarly affected by these developments and has also been facing its own particular challenges. Some of these are long-running; others are more current. My aim in this article is to air some of these challenges. The article is informed by my experiences as a counsellor trainer. I have been involved in counselling training in a number of part-time and full-time roles in further and higher education settings for nearly 20 years. It is also informed by my own recent research into the experiences and viewpoints of counsellor trainers.
For the research I interviewed trainers working on courses with a range of different theoretical bases across the UK. They included psychodynamic, person-centred, CBT and integrative practitioners. Most worked in university settings, although my sample also included some in further education and the private and independent sectors.
This article is, thus, my personal take on the current situation, informed by and contextualised within the viewpoints of others.
Counsellor training has developed a substantial presence in the public, private and voluntary sectors. The 2009 BACP training directory listed courses at over 350 universities, further education colleges and specialist training providers. While this might suggest its acceptance as a reputable academic subject with a secure place in higher and further education, this has not been my experience.
Despite its economic viability and successfully recruiting to target each year, the university-based diploma and masters programme I worked on at Nottingham Trent University was closed down in 2005. In 2006 I similarly witnessed the closure of counsellor training provision at Durham University. A more recent victim was the training at Sheffield Hallam University in 2010. I can’t comment on the reasons behind these specific closures but a constant theme in my training career across further and higher education settings has been the need to justify the existence of my work to the wider institution. What has been lacking, in my experience, is a sense of institutional belonging, of security of tenure.
My experience was echoed in my interviews with trainers in the university sector: interviewees described a lack of feeling supported, valued or, indeed, understood by their institutions. In the words of one trainer: ‘I think the context in which you’re operating as a trainer is hugely important. It’s a bit like Bowlby’s notion of “good enough parenting”, of needing to feel, at some level, held and supported and valued in what you’re doing as a parent to be able to offer good enough parenting. I think as a trainer that’s really important and is one of the biggest challenges because you hardly ever get that.’
It has been my experience, and that of the university-based trainers I interviewed, that institutions can and do exhibit a lack of understanding and, at times, an intolerance of the resource needs of counselling training programmes. The demands of the counselling training role, which stem from both its relational and professional nature, can be hard to convey and can be seen as unjustified special pleading. The desirability of co-tutoring, the need for appropriate teaching venues, the high number of staff/student contact hours can all be hard to explain and/or justify. Our students can be seen as somehow ‘messy’: frequently requiring extensions, not completing assignments on time, not fitting neatly with university IT systems.
As course director and external examiner, I have sat through examination boards where courses are, however politely, routinely regarded as problematic. As course director, I have had to rely on the goodwill of my immediate managers, on the extent of their appreciation of the value of counselling and, consequently, counsellor training. My experience is also that goodwill is not always enough.
The university sector
Counsellor training courses were established in universities in large numbers at a time when higher education was undergoing a massive quantitative and qualitative shift. The late 20th century witnessed a move to much greater universality of access to higher education in the UK, which in turn brought in a raft of new disciplines not previously viewed as falling within the remit of higher education. Counsellor training was one such new discipline. The size and composition of the student and staff bodies reflected these changes: academic staff are now more likely to come from professions outside academia and to be involved in the delivery of vocational programmes.2
Such changes have not been universally welcomed. Some academics have clung on to elitist values and practices from the past. As a professor at my university commented: ‘The hierarchy in universities tends to sneer at professional training courses.’ The new courses are often placed low down in the hierarchy of disciplines. One influential analysis places ‘soft applied’ programmes characterised by the ‘enhancement of [semi-] professional practice’ at the bottom of the status hierarchy.2 Counselling’s failure to achieve statutory regulated status has probably cemented our position there. The academic contribution of counselling courses may not be valued by either management or fellow academics; it may be viewed, indeed, privately or publically, as contributing to a general ‘dumbing-down’ of the system.
This can be especially true in the universities that dominate the Russell Group – the small group of ‘old’ universities with a high research profile. Despite the immense efforts put into raising the profile of counselling research in recent years, it remains relatively modest in comparison with other disciplines. It is difficult for counsellor training courses to attract large-scale research contracts to the same degree as some other disciplines. Moreover, we are not helped by our lack of a separate delineated status within the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and the Research Excellence Framework (REF) that replaced it. For example, counsellor training at my current university is situated in the school of education and so our research returns are assessed in terms of their national and international relevance and their relevance to the educational arena, but not their relevance to the counselling field.
Misfit and non-belonging
There are areas of potential fit between counsellor training and wider university cultures that suggest universities are appropriate settings for counselling training.3 A number of trainers I interviewed, particularly but not exclusively the CBT trainers, saw a synergy in a shared emphasis on the importance of critical thinking and the encouragement of evidence-based practice. However, as already mentioned, this did not translate into a sense of feeling valued and appropriately supported. In differing measures and in differing ways, the dominant picture was one not just of low status within their academic setting but also of misfit.
There are particular facets of counsellor training that may contribute to this sense of non-belonging or misfit in the university sector. Gender is one. Academic settings have been traditionally regarded as male spaces.4 Counsellors and their trainers are predominantly female; counselling, with its connections with emotional labour, can be viewed as a feminine activity. As indicated earlier, the ‘non-standard’ nature of counselling training can be seen as problematic.
Its value systems can be at odds with those of the wider institution. Counsellor trainers can struggle to reconcile their aims with institutional practices such as the modularisation of educational programmes, the emphasis on objective evidence and the prioritising of cognition. Conflicting priorities can emerge in recruitment and assessment – for example, between recognition of the importance of personal qualities and personal development in counselling and rewarding academic excellence.
A study in the 1990s found that 44 per cent of trainers had awarded a pass to people they thought were unsuitable to be counsellors on the grounds of their personality or behaviour but who had achieved the required academic standard.5 Conversely, one of the trainers I interviewed talked of her fear of universities having no place for ‘natural’ counsellors who lack academic qualifications.
An increasingly important factor is funding. The changes in higher education in the late 20th century were accompanied by the introduction of so-called new managerialism. Commercial concepts such as economic feasibility, consumer choice, marketability, accountability and competition were introduced into the sector. Put simply, counsellor training’s continued existence within further and higher education is heavily dependent on its economic viability, and it faces particular challenges in this respect.
As already mentioned, counsellor training programmes are expensive to run and the fees are comparatively high. Even with healthy recruitment, it can be a struggle to make the books balance. Generally, counselling cannot be described as a major contributor to university profits. Without healthy recruitment, we can be seen as loss-makers and hence vulnerable to closure.
Arguably, the current financial climate both within education and in the wider environment is only increasing our difficulties. State funding for universities is being dramatically reduced, leading to substantially higher tuition fees for students. Postgraduate provision, where counsellor training programmes are commonly positioned, faces particular challenges. Not only are fees set to rise but, as a dean at my university recently pointed out, demand is likely to be hit by the large burden of debt already accumulated by students during their undergraduate studies.
Potential counselling students are also likely to be deterred by the reduced employment opportunities in the sector. Interestingly, although CBT is commonly depicted as holding a stronger market position, the CBT trainers I interviewed pointed to the threat to their programmes posed by IAPT. As one trainer said: ‘There is direct competition, yes, because they can come on our programme and pay for it, or they can get a job and get the course paid for.’
Recruiting sufficient numbers to courses while ensuring that offers are only made to appropriate candidates is difficult. At the same time, students understandably want value for money; they can fail to understand why the programmes are so expensive and can complain vociferously about the inadequacy of the teaching facilities. As fees rise and employment opportunities shrink, low recruitment levels may lead to course closures.
As may be evident from this article, I am concerned about the future of counsellor training. I am acutely aware that its continued presence within the university sector is at best insecure. Some might not see this as a bad thing. Commentators have questioned the appropriateness of universities as settings for training,6 and my own experience and that of others might seem to back this up. The same question can be asked in relation to further education colleges. My experience there has been similar – high importance attached to profitability and an endemic misunderstanding of the particular requirements of counsellor training programmes.
One answer might be to return to the private or independent sector; I have frequently heard trainers declare its superiority as a base for counsellor training. This is often articulated in terms of the greater freedom the sector offers to construct and deliver training programmes in a way that is congruent with both the philosophical and ethical underpinnings of counselling practice. While understanding the attraction of such a move, I am not convinced of its feasibility. Private providers are equally vulnerable to the wider economic climate. As one private sector trainer said: ‘If we don’t recruit then we don’t get paid. And that’s happened. So we’ve had a lot of financial worry.’
Moreover, these vaunted freedoms are nowadays frequently curtailed by partnerships with universities as validating bodies. Such partnerships are important in terms of improving the marketability of courses and enable graduates to compete on an equal playing field in the job market. However, as well as forcing training providers into compliance with university policies and procedures, they also push up the price of training for participants. It is my impression that it is only long-established, independent institutes with strong reputations that can survive in such a context. Quality does not always equate with survival, as the closure of PCCS Training in Manchester demonstrates.
I have no neat and tidy solution to the situation. I do have some thoughts about potential ways forward. I see it as important that we work together to strengthen our presence across all sectors – across further and higher education and private or independent settings. While I have listed here the difficulties inherent in university-based training, I also think it has much to offer. I see students developing as critical, informed, reflective and highly skilled practitioners and I am touched by the process, as well as proud of it. I would like to see training providers come together across all sectors and orientations to identify and promote common interests as well as provide mutual support. And I’d like to see BACP encourage such initiatives. I would like a more public discussion of the challenges faced by counsellor training providers. I have written this article in this spirit.
Dr Liz Ballinger is Course Director of the MA in Counselling (part two) at the University of Manchester. She is also Deputy Director for the Professional Doctorate in Counselling delivered at Manchester and at KAPC, Nairobi, Kenya. Her PhD examined how British counsellor trainers understand and experience their role. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also read Colin Feltham ‘in conversation’ with Liz Ballinger where she discusses the themes in this article in more detail.
1. McInnes B. The crisis is already with us. Letters. Therapy Today 2011; 22(7): 38.
2. Becher T, Trowler PR. Academic tribes and territories (2nd edition). Maidenhead, Berks: SHRE/Open University Press; 2001.
3. Jacobs M. That psychotherapy and counselling trainings should be based in universities. European Journal of Psychotherapy, Counselling and Health 2002; 5(4): 347–358.
4. Cotterill P, Letherby G. Women in higher education: issues and challenges. Women’s Studies International Forum 2005; 28: 109–113.
5. Wheeler S. Training counsellors: the assessment of competence. London: Cassell; 1996.
6. Parker I. Universities are not a good place for psychotherapy and counselling training. European Journal of Psychotherapy, Counselling and Health 2002; 5(4): 331–346.