Plugging the gap in women's studies

15th October 2004 at 01:00
At a college that was once the preserve of men studying engineering, women students can now study social sciences from their own gender perspective, reports Joe Eyre

Important ground is being broken this session with the introduction of women's studies into the Scottish further education curriculum. A part-time professional development award (PDA) with Scottish Qualifications Authority approval is being offered by Stow College in Glasgow.

Sociology, psychology, health and history is being taught from the perspective of women and a project will allow individual students to select a research area of particular interest.

To some, this might appear an ironic development given the college's history. In its hey day it was an engineering college pure and simple, a male preserve with a conceit of its professional expertise. It was not until the mid-1970s that women lecturers were seen in its classrooms. Even then, the first women were not appointed by the college, but transferred as science lecturers from the David Dale centre which was closing.

The college now says, not without justification, all that belongs to the past. Structural changes in the west of Scotland economy, particularly during the 1980s, meant no college could maintain itself solely as a centre of engineering.

"Engineering remains an important part of the work of the college. This is our 70th anniversary year and we are proud of the contribution we have made to engineering education and training in that time," says the vice-principal for curriculum, Alex McLean.

"But we have to respond to economic and social change. We take account of the changing needs of employers and are very serious about the Government's social inclusion agenda and we try hard to respond to the needs of our communities."

New areas of study such as health care, accountancy, business administration and leisure management have been opened up and a range of Access programmes have been established.

The college has also shown some imagination by introducing a department of musical creative industries; it even offers an HNC in bagpipe playing.

The introduction of women's studies is part of its curricular innovation.

It is the idea of Pam Currie, 27, a part-time lecturer in the social sciences section.

"I discovered that it wasn't possible to do a women's studies course as a first degree anywhere in Scotland. I thought that was an important gap," she says.

"Looking at the new European Union accession states, for example, I found that it was possible to do a first degree in women's studies in the Czech Republic, Estonia and Lithuania, while in Scotland it was only possible to study this area as part of another degree course," explains Ms Currie.

"Even that limited choice was on offer at only Aberdeen and Strathclyde universities."

Her senior lecturer, Rab Wilson, was quickly converted.

"We recruit more women than men as students," he says. "The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that it was absurd to invite women on to our social sciences courses and not allow them the opportunity to investigate their own experiences as women."

Senior management responded well. The social sciences section already had developed successful HNC and HND courses and an Access programme. They also offered Highers in sociology, psychology and history.

For the initial women's studies course development, market research canvassed 100 organisations in and around Glasgow, from Women's Aid and the Amina Muslim Women's Resource Centre to the Turning Point drugs crisis centre and the Oxfam UK poverty programme.

More than half of those which responded said the course would be "very useful" as part of their staff development provision, and another third said it would be "quite useful". More than half said they would be prepared to release staff for the course on a day-release or flexible-release basis.

"We got a brilliant response," says Ms Currie. "The Women's Library let us use the mailing list of its lifelong learning project to contact organisations. Within a week we were getting calls asking when the course was starting. At the time we hadn't even started the serious writing."

Women lecturers in the social sciences section were enthusiastic. Jill McInnes contributed to writing the health and psychology modules, while Candy Irvine assisted in designing the project specifications. The men contributed, too. Mr Wilson produced the sociology unit, while Tom Hughes took on history.

"I thought it was a great idea," says Mr Hughes. "Teaching Higher history, I found that a number of the mature men on the course were choosing to study areas of women's history, such as the suffragette movement. They find it very interesting."

The first intake of students this term - 11 women and one man - includes voluntary sector workers and a couple of trade unionists. The college hopes to develop the course for TUC recognition.

Several students from the current Access to Social Science course are expected to enrol next year. An introductory part-time course is planned to run from January, which would prepare students for the PDA or other full-time courses at the college. This would be run in association with the Glasgow Women's Library at the Trongate.

The women's studies course is already spreading its influence. The University of Paisley has indicated it might consider the PDA qualification as contributing towards the entry requirements for some of its courses.

Other FE colleges have said they would like to use some of the units in their own courses and Queen Margaret University College in Edinburgh has expressed interest in collaborating with future curricular developments.

The course team at Stow is confident that eventually they will be able to produce an HNC course in women's studies.

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