Why Education Matters, But Not By Degrees


A few weeks ago, a Twitter debate raged on the subject of whether it was necessary for all police officers to be degree educated. It has been proposed by the College of Policing that, in order to “professionalise” the police, it is desirable (and, therefore, likely to happen) that any new recruit will be required to undertake a Batchelor’s degree in policing.

At present, it is not clear what that will look like but the best guess is that it will actually be combining all existing foundation training and calling it a degree. Purists argue that this is not a degree at all as it does not test critical thinking and there is no dissertation. Others see it as the gateway to a future of officers who will act and think differently.

My own personal view can be read here and so far I have heard nothing to change that opinion. You can also read the views of someone who actually manages the criminal justice programme at Canterbury Christ Church University as Emma Williams has published her own blog which can be read here

I am very pleased to host this blog from military historian and …. dare I say it… career academic Jill Russell. Jill has been kind enough to share her views on this issue and they make interesting reading.

Why education matters, but not by degrees.

I sit down to write this piece on the relationship between education and policing in a peculiar situation. I hold four academic degrees, and currently sit at the centre of professional military education in the United Kingdom. There is not very much more that could suggest my lifelong commitment to education, particularly that which is to be found in the academy. And yet despite that, albeit for slightly different reasons, I come down on the side of the debate espoused by Nathan Constable and Emma Williams, which generally questions the wisdom of a degree requirement for policing. Nevertheless, what policing does need are education and the learning it generates.

While the seeming contradiction of that position nags at your minds, let me attend to the first point, which is that a degree requirement does not necessarily serve policing. My problem with such a requirement is that I have a sneaking suspicion that it would end up with a prescribed course which ticked the boxes on a number of technical capabilities around criminology or quantitative analysis. I do not have a problem with such qualifications, but it should be very clear that neither represents the sum total of policing. Such capabilities certainly have utility in policing, but as a historian who has turned a bit towards the analysis of the work, I hardly think either is necessary to deal intelligently with the issues of concern. Furthermore, such a prescribed course of study begs the question that policing is a technical field, which I think is hardly the case. Of course, if the degree requirement were simply to have studied something at the university level, whatever the course, I might feel more comfortable. But I cannot argue that such a requirement would necessarily deliver the benefits being touted, and thus returns us to the necessity question.

How, then, can I argue that education is necessary if there is to be no degree? It comes down to my fundamental philosophy on what constitutes education and how it generates learning. In the simplest possible terms, education is the process of generating good confusion, a state in which one is uncertain about the answer to a question or problem and proceeds to ask good questions about it. This is, I think, conveys clearly what is obscured by the lofty sounding term ‘critical thinking.’ I tell my students here that it is my express intent to generate confusion for them, and it usually renders them horrified at first. But if they are willing to let go of opinions and the things they are quite certain they know, to question everything and consider a multitude of perspectives, the false certainties inevitably give way to the considered wisdom that there are very few right answers in this world.

I should further note that although they are a firm technical requirement for the work I want to do, degrees are not necessarily the best at delivering education. For all the time I have spent in classroom study, I would argue that some of my most valuable education in terms of learning has come through experience and observation away from the formality of schooling.* More interestingly, an ideal example of education and learning away from the schoolhouse which is valuable to policing was demonstrated by none other than Nathan Constable himself. In his blog on the value of neighbourhood policing wherein he tells of how he dealt with a problem that seemed to defy any sensible resolution, the approach he describes himself as taking is education and learning. Rather than continuing to do the same things over and over, he accepted that the standard solutions were unsuited. Embracing the confusion of having ‘no’ answer, he set about to observe and ask good questions of the situation. Through that process he arrived at a set of answers which were novel as they were effective. It was in very many respects a research paper of action. And I doubt that he is alone, but rather suspect that there are many police officers without degrees who will read this and recall to mind their own similar experiences.

Ultimately, then, the requirement of a degree for police can be dismissed for the learning already manifest across the service. One need only survey the very many officers engaged in the process of writing about the work, of thinking through experiences and their meaning, to understand that Nathan Constable is not alone on his educational path. So, rather than forcing a process which may or may not be of value, the service ought to instead consider how to support these efforts and benefit from the work already being done.

*Lest it appear that I am arguing against the very institution within which I work, I do believe firmly in the importance and value of the professional military education system. It functions to introduce the officers to a universe of issues and problems which their prior instruction, training and experience has not prepared them to handle. The movement from tactical practitioner responsible for the work of their occupational specialty to staff officer engaged in matters of policy and strategy creates a deficit that is most reliably and efficiently overcome within the confines of a formal classroom. I might go even further to suggest that, as I coming to understand policing, there may be room for a similar requirement in that line of work. But exploring the contours of what would constitute valuable professional policing education is a blog for another day.

The Red Button Project is intended to allow front line practitioners, the public and people who work alongside the police to contribute ideas and thoughts on what a police service would look like if you had to design one from scratch. 

Previous blogs can be viewed on our blog site
You can follow us on Twitter @OldBillRebuilt and the hashtag #OldBillRebuilt. If you would like to contribute ideas, blogs or suggestions then please use the comments section below or contact @NathanConstable, @DedicatedPeeler or @EmWilliamsCCCU

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