Criminology Degrees: Clues to a career as a crime solver

Television shows have led to a steep rise in students wanting a career in detection, says Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

Hardly a prime-time TV hour goes by without a body-bag being unzipped on a mortuary slab, a balaclava-clad villain bursting in unannounced, or a detective thoughtfully placing another pin into a map on the CID-room wall.

It's hardly surprising, then, that demand for university degrees with a criminology component is also on the increase. But the television-drama-induced popularity of criminology can be a double-edged sword, because among the throngs of 18-year-olds applying for courses in the subject are many who risk disappointment.

"There's still a proportion of students who want to be Cracker," explains Paul Kiff, of the British Society of Criminology (BSC), referring to the crime-solving clinical psychologist played by Robbie Coltrane. "But we tell them to go to Rada instead," he says.

The BSC, based at the University of East London, maintains a database of all UK university courses in the subject, available on its website at www.britsoccrim.org, and fields numerous calls from potential students. However, those inspired by the intellectual challenge of Cracker and his real-life counterparts, rather than by life on a film-set, should not be put off, particularly since degrees these days are becoming increasingly shaped by the practical applications of what's taught. "Most courses are moving away from what used to be highly theoretical treatment of the subject," says Kiff.

This trend has, in turn, bolstered the overall health of criminology as an academic subject, according to Professor Friedrich Lösel, the director of Cambridge University's Institute of Criminology. "Criminology is flourishing because there are more and more practical applications," he argues. These applications, he says, have emerged as the academic world has diverted its gaze from merely describing and explaining criminal behaviour towards considering ways that society can intervene, in an attempt to control, or even change, human nature.

To this end, criminology courses span a wide range of separate academic areas, including psychology, sociology, philosophy, history and law. For many, this breadth of study is an attraction in itself, alongside the fashion factor.

At Leicester University, for example, the BA in Criminology didn't exist four years ago, although the university had a well-established postgraduate programme. But such was the demand from school-leavers that Leicester decided to start an undergraduate course. It's been a runaway success, and the 50 or 60 first-year places on offer every year could be filled nearly 10 times over by students choosing it as either their first or second option.

This year, applications are up by 20 per cent, bucking the trend across higher education in general of a slight drop-off (due, it's thought, to top-up fees kicking in this autumn).

The Leicester course is run jointly between the departments of criminology and sociology where students go for a third of their lectures. At the core of the course is a study of theories and manifestations of crime, and a critical look at the criminal justice system. Throughout, though, there's also a constant emphasis on the possible methods of reducing criminal behaviour.

"There's no point studying crime if we don't use that knowledge to try to prevent it," says Dr Annette Robertson, who runs the BA programme. She acknowledges the fact that many first-years arrive with a view of the crime landscape based solely on television viewing and perusal of the less demanding end of the popular press. To combat that, students are encouraged to challenge their own perceptions and apply critical thought to all popular, sweeping assumptions in the field.

The academic requirements for the Leicester course are two Bs and a C at A-level, in any subject, which is also the minimum that will get you onto Lancaster University's nine-year-old criminology degree course.

Although Lancaster's admissions tutor, Chris Grover, highlights the solid theoretical platform for the course, he has noticed that large numbers of recent applicants are particularly attracted by the practical applications. Many, for example, want to join the police on graduation.

For these individuals, Grover's thumbnail summary of the course sounds like an ideal preparation for ascending the ranks.

At the core, he says, is "an understanding of why people engage in crime, why we do what we do to them, and how effective the punishments are."

Clearly, then, there are a lot of clues to study.

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