Reflections on 45 years in Psychology at the University of Liverpool

In September this year, 2018, I retire after 45 years working in Psychology at the University of Liverpool. As one might expect, my feelings on leaving are very mixed; I am very much looking forward to spending more time with my family and friends, and engaging in my other interests but there is much I will miss. Indeed, the fact that I stayed in the same job, in the same place for 45 years, must say something!

I arrived in 1973 as a demonstrator, in what was then the Department of Psychology, after I had spent three years studying for a PhD at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. I had a great time as a student at Newcastle but with my ESRC grant running out, it was time to find a job. I had never been to Liverpool before but contrary to the many negative stereotypes that were floating around at the time, almost exclusively from people who had never been there, I really liked the Liverpool and its people from the moment I arrived. In many respects the city was very run down and neglected; the ravages of the WW2 bombings were still clearly visible and the city was obviously suffering from a lack of investment; but I found it as vibrant and friendly then as it is today. It has been wonderful to see the city come up over the years; as my daughter and I have often remarked, there aren’t many places where you can go on a boat trip, go shopping and eating in a really pleasant environment, visit a world-famous museum or art gallery, go to an expansive undeveloped beach, dune system and woods, have a drink in a pub in the countryside by the canal, and then go to a theatre, cinema, or club, all in one day!

When I arrived, the Department of Psychology had just moved from its former home in Abercrombie Square to the brand-new Eleanor Rathbone Building. Significantly, the design of the building had much input from the staff in Psychology, particularly Dennis Bromley, who was to become Head of Department for many years. In those days, there was a large student common room where students (and staff) could meet and chat, as well as, a dedicated staff common room in which tea was served at set times every morning and afternoon. Consequently, most of us tended to take a break at the same time to go downstairs and meet up for tea and conversation.

In those days, of course, there were no staff computers, mobile phones, emails etc. So, if you needed to communicate with someone you most often went to see them or phoned them and if you needed to contact someone more formally and farther away, you wrote a letter to them (as a member of staff you dictated your more formal letters to the Departmental secretaries who would record them in shorthand and type them up for you!). As a result of this, you often found staff looking for or asking after students in the common room and students routinely knocking on your door. One feature, therefore, of academic life in those days was that most of us genuinely felt very engaged with the students. This was evident not only in the amount of time we spent talking to them formally, but also informally. For example, it was common practice to introduce yourself to your tutees by inviting them back home for drinks, or down the pub. In return, invites to student parties were a regular occurrence. Another highlight for many students were David Dickins’ field trips to Lundy Island and students were often taken to visit various institutions.

Of course, staff research in those days was also very important and we had enormous freedom to research what we wanted. Research was not considered to be the be and end all of academic life; rather it was something to be balanced with teaching and interaction with students, both formally and informally. Moreover, no-one seemed particularly interested in how much research grant money we were bringing in. The people who applied for money tended to be those who needed it for expensive equipment etc. This meant that we could research what we were genuinely interested in and had a passion for, regardless of whether it would ‘bring in money’. Additionally, with a very flexible curriculum we were given considerable freedom to communicate our interests to our students. As a result, many of us found we had a balance of academic freedom, student engagement and research that made the job extremely rewarding. Indeed, in many respects one could say it was the ‘golden era of academia’ for both staff and students. In fact, one often heard the popular remark from academics of this era that ‘this beats a proper job any day!’.

Over the years, however, inevitably things have changed. As governments became more concerned with balancing budgets, the business model was applied to education and throughout the country the idea of Universities as businesses took hold. One saw this particularly during the ‘90s when Universities started emphasising research money as a critical indicator of staff research performance and subsequently as a primary criterion for promotion.

Next in line, as expected, was student fees. The arguments and justifications for such moves are, of course, complex. With growths in technology and changes in expectations, higher education, like health, is far more expensive than it used to be. The benefits to the country of producing cutting edge research and having well qualified graduates have to be balanced against the fact that there is not an unlimited supply of tax-payers money to pay for them. However, it does not follow that only the research that ‘brings in money’ is necessarily that which has the greatest scientific merit. There is little doubt that staff have found this obsession with research funding extremely limiting and time consuming.

Whatever the reasoning behind it, these changes they have certainly impacted on Psychology at Liverpool. Since the early 2000s student numbers have increased dramatically across the University and to accommodate them the Eleanor Rathbone Building has been through numerous incarnations. Many of these have been for the better but others, particularly the loss of the student common room and later cafeteria are, in my opinion, a real loss because with them went a focal point for students and staff to interact. At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult for academic staff to truly engage with students, particularly when they must balance this with an expectation that they should produce 5-star papers and bring in large quantities of research money.

The bureaucratic demands placed on both students and staff now are also far greater than they were in the ‘70s and ‘80s. As in modern life generally, there are far more forms to fill out and boxes to tick than ever before. However, whilst many might argue this has gone too far, one cannot deny that in many respects things have improved.

When I started, student’s work was not moderated or marked anonymously; there were no marking turnaround deadlines, and there was no effective consideration for students with disabilities. Also, no formal concern was given to ethics which meant that students could be recruited to participate in any number of potentially dubious studies. Further, although it was simple and fun to deliver lectures with blackboard and chalk rather than PowerPoint, students often had no idea what a module was going to be about. If the lecturer could not be heard, or wrote illegibly, students had no record at all of what was said in the lecture, or how to find references for it. Consequently, year three failures were more common as many students floundered with the lack of information or ‘fell off the radar’. When problems did occur, there was no formal mechanism like the current staff-student liaison committee to report them.

It is notable in this respect that Psychology was at the forefront of some significant developments in the University. For instance, Psychology put in place a research ethics scrutiny procedure long before the idea was taken up by the University as a whole. Psychology was also the first department to introduce a Student Experience Office which, thanks to the amazing staff involved, remains one of the most significant assets of Psychology at Liverpool.

In many respects, modern University procedures are much fairer and more transparent in the way they treat students. However, I see a central challenge for staff in the modern era as they must try to deal with various demands of the job in such a way that one of the most enjoyable features (the most enjoyable feature of the job for many) can be maintained and nurtured, and that is engagement with students. For me, the opportunity to interact with so many really friendly, interesting, enthusiastic and appreciative people of all ages, has been hugely rewarding, both personally and professionally, and it is the part of the job I will miss the most. This highlights perhaps one of the main lessons I have learnt from my time at Liverpool; in my experience, engagement with students is not about NSS ratings, rather it is something that is mutually beneficial to staff and students, enabling students to have positive experiences that they can carry with them throughout life, and staff to know the true meaning of job satisfaction.

Given this, I am very pleased to see that some very real changes have already been put in place at Liverpool to meet this challenge and that further developments are proposed. Students studying Psychology at Liverpool can have little doubt that they have the support of extremely dedicated staff who really do have their interests at heart.

In finishing, I would like to offer my sincere thanks to all my colleagues and students who over the years have made my job so rewarding. My best wishes for the future to you all.


Honorary contribution by Professor Graham Wagstaff, former staff member and School of Psychology legend.

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