Letter to BledCom: the changing nature of professional accreditation and education

Letter to BledCom: the changing nature of professional accreditation and education

In this final letter to BledCom the CIPR’s CEO Alastair McCapra reflects on the changing nature of accreditation and education within professional membership organisations.


I’m taking the project that I kick started last year as CIPR Past President to BledCom on 1 – 2 July. The goal is explore ways of improving collaboration between academia and practice in public relations. It's an annual international public relations research symposium, now in its 23rd year.

By Alastair McCapra, CEO, CIPR

The latest figures from Professional Associations Research Network (PARN) on degree requirements for professional entry, and take up of mandatory nature of continuous professional development (CPD), tell a story of shift from degrees to life time learning.

In 2015 70% of PARN members didn’t require a degree for full membership. It’s almost a complete reversal of the situation three years previously.

CPD is now a requirement of full membership of half of PARN members.

Looking at these figures suggests to me that the CIPR is actually pretty close to the mainstream in its requirements.

At very time universities have been producing more graduates than ever before, the professions, quietly and without any fanfare, have overwhelmingly stopped requiring a degree for full professional membership

Rapid but uncoordinated action

The change has been rapid, and as far as I’m aware, completely uncoordinated.

There were a number of initiatives under the last Labour government to increase access to the professions – at one time Vera Baird, then Solicitor General was in charge of this.

Later on Alan Milburn became Chair of the Social Mobility Commission which champions the dismantling of formal rules and other obstacles that might impede progress for people from non-traditional backgrounds trying to enter the professions.

In a less high-profile way, Doreen Lawrence was also working towards the same end.

The net effect of all of this appears to have been that through reflection on their own rules and criteria, professional bodies have come to the conclusion that they were too rigid and possibly exclusionary, and that they could function perfectly well without actively trying to keep people out.

Changing requirements for learning

Another factor is that in past decades, you could learn enough at university in a few years to make you professionally competent for most of your life.

The idea of lifelong learning in a profession though CPD is relatively new – doctors have only been required to do CPD and revalidate for about the last 15 years.

As professions place greater emphasis on learning and developing throughout your career, there is correspondingly less concern about exactly what you know when you start out.

A question of professionalism

My opinion is also that professionalism is the intersection of three things – knowledge, skill and ethics.  Most of the older professions have been very big on knowledge, represented by high barriers to entry.

Knowledge now has a much shorter half-life, and is anyway much more easily acquirable, so its value is falling.  Skill remains important for all professions, and is a strong point for PR.  Rapidly rising in the firmament is ethics – not what you know or what you can do, but whether you can make sound judgements about applying knowledge and skills.

In the age of Open Knowledge, cowboy operators won’t be people who don’t know what they’re doing, they’ll be people who know exactly what they’re doing and shouldn’t have done it.

Future of skills and education

There’s no doubt that most people entering most professions are still graduates and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, so one way of looking at this is that precisely because there are so many graduates, professional bodies can be more relaxed than ever about whether they recruit non-graduates or not.

The career entry market is flooded with graduates so if a few (more) non-graduates get in here and there it is no big deal.

But if I was a university I don’t think I’d draw a great deal of comfort from these figures- not least because the value of knowledge is only going to continue to fall in coming years, it seems.

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