Good practice makes perfect

May 26, 2000

High-profile blunders and a wary public have led to calls for more guidance for professionals. Claire Sanders reports

Professionals are under fire from the public and the government. The bodies that represent them are struggling to protect their members - as well as the public.

When David Southall, the professor at the centre of the inquiry into experimental treatment on premature babies, was accused of misleading parents recently, the British Medical Association immediately issued a statement.

"The days when patients simply left it to doctors to try what they thought best are over," said Michael Wilks, chairman of the BMA's medical ethics committee.

Dr Wilks's statement will resonate not just with medical professionals, but also with many of the 5.5 million people who call themselves professionals, the professional associations representing them and those in universities teaching them. Now there is an all-round call for more guidance.

More than 450 professional associations cater for this expanding and changing section of the workforce. Next month, many of them will meet to discuss regulation and education as part of a conference organised by the Professional Associations Research Network on the changing nature of professionalism.

Parn was set up two years ago by the University of Bristol. Its mission is to "increase the profile of issues relating to professionals, professionalism and professional associations through research and networking, with the aim of determining and promoting professional good practice".

Much of Parn's work is directed at professional bodies. Some of it is aimed at those in universities who are educating future professionals and those involved in continuing professional development.

Others are also working to bring together professional associations. The UK Inter-Professional Group (UKIPG), which has long sought to harmonise the work of professional bodies, has issued a number of policy statements on issues such as professional regulation. A draft document on the educational role of professional regulatory bodies is being circulated.

Parn owes its existence largely to Jeff Watkins at Bristol, who spent ten years researching issues concerning professions and professionalism. Each year, Dr Watkins received about 100 requests for information from professional associations, but he had the resources to deal with only a few.

Professional associations are a mixed bag. Some are primarily trade unions, others, such as the General Medical Council, are expected to guarantee standards and to protect the public. High-profile blunders - such as the Bristol baby deaths and the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International - have dented the credibility of doctors, accountants, auditors and lawyers, and the government has come under pressure to better regulate the professions.

The director of Parn, Andy Friedman, says: "The government is taking a more proactive stance in a number of areas of concern to all professional associations, particularly on regulations and qualifications."

Mr Friedman argues that professional associations are changing from organisations reliant on subscription income, run often by volunteers, to more professionally managed bodies focusing on regulation, continuing professional development, international qualifications and competition.

As a result, he says, associations face increasingly common challenges. So far, 64 associations have joined Parn.

Parn has established a steering group of senior executives of professional associations. It runs a website with a number of discussion forums covering such issues as internationalisation, regulation and running professional associations.

A key speaker at its conference next month is Sue Slipman, a member of the Better Regulation Task Force, which the government set up in September 1997. Ms Slipman, director for social responsibility at Camelot Group and a former director of the gas consumers' council, says: "We have gone from a trust-me culture to a show-me culture. That is why there is a new stress on occupational standards and competencies."

Those in higher education need to keep their curriculum up to date and to keep an eye on the increasingly lucrative market of continuing professional development (CPD).

Ms Slipman argues that there is a culture clash between a professional framework based on competences being developed by many professional bodies and universities.

"Universities have shown a great contempt for defining competences," she says. "They have to change because the professionals they are educating will increasingly have to prove their competences throughout life."

She argues that the old model of graduate entry to a closed shop is obsolete. "Professionals need to keep learning all their lives, they face volatile processes that they need to keep ahead of."

In its draft policy statement on the educational role of professional regulatory bodies, the UKIPG lists the standards and expectations of a professional higher education course and argues that they can work alongside the higher education quality assurance mechanisms. The standards and expectations include "a foundation for a wide range of subsequent study", the development of a "positive attitude towards lifelong learning" and "the underlying body of knowledge within the context of real professional applications".

Individual professions will have additional requirements. The paper says that "many of the generic qualities and expectations are consistent with the definition of 'graduate standards' developed by the former Higher Education Quality Council's graduate standards programme and the current Quality Assurance Agency's work on subject benchmarking and programme specifications".

Robin Middlehurst of the University of Surrey, who has carried out research for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Higher Education Funding Council for England on the impact of virtual and corporate universities on UK higher education, has warned: "The CPD market is large (estimated at Pounds 600 million in 1998) and universities are only getting a (small) proportion of it." In 1996, 31 per cent of employers used British universities to provide CPD courses.

One of the Parn reports, Building a CPD Network on the Internet, found that "those involved in CPD policies and programmes in professional associations and at universities did not constitute a community or an active network". It went on: "Most felt isolated from a lack of contact with people engaged in the CPD area."

It calls for greater collaboration between professional associations and universities.

Two years ago, those in CPD also got a professional body, the Institute of Continuing Professional Development. It describes itself as "a multidisciplinary forum to reinforce and promote the critical importance of lifelong learning to all professions".

Mr Friedman argues that the strength of UK professional bodies gives them a distinct international advantage. "In Europe, many professions are controlled more by the state than through their own bodies or through universities. In the United States, where they are more independent, bodies tend to be organised at a state, rather than a national, level," he says. "Many professional associations in this country are strong organisations with long histories.

Many have significant overseas membership, particularly accountancy bodies. These bring in revenue to the UK. At Parn we want to improve this international standing through better information and networking."

The conference "The changing nature of professionalism", organised by the Professional Associations Research Network, takes place on June 20 at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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