A Sociological Autobiography: 35 – Masters in ‘Sociology, Health and Health Care’

By | October 8, 2014

As one of our early joint initiatives Paul Higgs and I got the paperwork for a new Masters in ‘Sociology, Health and Health Care’ through the UCL bureaucracy and approved. We had not wanted to tread on the toes of our colleagues at Royal Holloway, whose seminal and profoundly influential M.Sc dated back to the heyday of Margot Jefferys and George Brown, not to mention David Tuckett, Bob Golding, Sheila Hillier, Uta Gerhardt, Ray Fitzpatrick et al (I had taught on it one year when Margot was stuck for personnel and would do so again when Jonathan Gabe was similarly caught short). Paul and I satisfied ourselves that we would be offering something different and I emailed Mike Bury to this effect. Unfortunately he seemed not have received or read my placatory missive and murmurings of discontent emanated from south of the Thames. But it seemed to us that we were different animals from the impressive team of Mike, Jonathan Gabe and MaryAnn Elston and had different plans. Our M.Sc would be much more theoretically focused. Our modules covered classical and contemporary social theory; social determinants of disease, illness and illness behaviour; comparative health policy and health systems; and philosophy and methods. It could be taken one-year full-time or two-years part-time.

Occupying most of our Thursdays and Fridays, Paul and I shared the 90% of the teaching. We were unimpressed with other UCL Masters programmes that merely drafted in a heterogeneous assembly of colleagues to lead seminars. James Nazroo joined us to teach the principles of quantitative and qualitative research, and we had a few guest lecturers; but it fell to Paul and I to bear the brunt of the work. We looked to recruit 8-12 students, with UCL hoping and expecting for wholesome remuneration from outside of the European Union. For a while we held our own, with the two recruits from the Scambler household, Sasha (a graduate in sociology from Bristol) and Miranda (a graduate in sociology from Warwick), profiting from healthy recruitment and good company (although the latter suffered the ignominy of being taught by her father, mother and older sister). Unable to appraise my daughters or chair the examination board, Paul was often required to step in and run the show.

We encountered one interesting hiccup. We organized our own ‘local’ unseen examinations to make for informality and to take pressure off the students. One of our students, an excellent one and himself a university lecturer, decided half way through one of the papers that his mind had gone blank and that he could not continue. I was invigilating and escorted him outside the room to try to persuade him to hang in there; as there was a window in the door I was able to observe the other students whilst talking to him. It was to no avail and he ultimately left. My attempt to calm and reassure him had failed. Later, however, he lodged a formal complaint that the examination had been improperly conducted: the invigilator had left the room in the middle of the examination and left the candidates to their own devices. I was disappointed and unimpressed and told him so, while at the same time I re-affirmed his rights to make a complaint. The upshot was an independent inspection of our procedures and, though we were not criticized, the assimilation thereafter of our M.Sc examinations into UCL’s more formal system.

The threat of external audit hung over us – together with our colleagues in UCL and elsewhere of course – through this period. Professor Neville Woolf, a pathologist whose pompous dismissal of the likes of sociologists at the Middlesex had not endeared him to me, was put in charge of a UCL programme of preparations. His was clear and thorough and visited the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences to set out his bureaucratic stall. It was not enough to replace a blown light bulb in the department toilets, he averred; there must be a paper trail, an email record of any student complaint of the hazards of darkness and how this was remedied. Neville was necessarily less pompous in his UCL days, a smaller fish in a bigger pool of renowned pathologists, but his prescriptions nevertheless failed to strike a chord.

It was not enough, we were informed via Neville, to set aims and objectives for each of our modules, which we had done. What was required was a set of aims, objectives and outcomes for each and every seminar comprising the course. Bollocks! I resolutely refused, feeling the same way I had about dead light bulbs. There was to be no come-uppance. Apparently my two bulging ring binders of documentation were deemed adequate. In the event of the inspection and audit of UCL courses that followed, there occurred, I understand, an altogether more interesting explosion as home and visiting hierarchies clashed. The shoot-from-the-hip combustible Derek Roberts was the Provost. When an auditor entered, flung his papers onto an appropriately polished long table in a room replete with portraits of the dead and exclaimed that there were a lot of questions requiring answers, Derek told him that if that was his attitude he could pick up his papers and leave the campus: UCL was open to interrogation but not to gross and foolish attempts at intimidation. Autocrats have their moments.

The final year of our time-limited M.Sc, 2003, is a study in its own right. Eight students accepted and confirmed their commitment to attend in writing. Of these, six were from outside the European Union: none of them turned up, or indeed informed us that they did not intend to do so. Feeling morally committed, Paul and I explained the situation to the other two candidates and offered to go ahead if they were still up for it. Yes, they said. One subsequently withdrew, seemingly put off by the realities of being one of a pair. So we taught the one student in our final year, Suzanne Moffatt. But what a student! Already in possession of a Ph.D, Suzanne travelled down from the far north, teabag at the ready (‘just a cup of hot water please’) to engage Paul and I in debate. She was, and is, a delightful colleague and is now a senior lecturer at Newcastle University. If we had to conclude our initiative, this was a reasonable way to do it. But why did it happen? I think because we offered an unapologetically academic – indeed, theoretical – experience which did not lead to obvious credentials in an age when employers as well as aspirants were focusing on the pragmatic attainment of credentials. It was a good course, but we were overtaken by events and insufficiently willing to compromise. It is enormously to the credit of Jonathan Gabe in particular that the Royal Holloway course survived these same constraints.


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