Review Of The Report Of The Dearing Inquiry By The Commons Education And Employment Select Committee

Views Of The Biochemical Society On The Report


The Biochemical Society, with some 9500 members in academic institutions, public authority bodies and industry, promotes the advancement of the science of biochemistry (which includes disciplines such as molecular biology and biotechnology), in active collaboration with other learned societies representing cellular and molecular life sciences. The Society concerns itself with all aspects of education and training, including curriculum development and teaching technology. It is in contact with other societies in the cellular and molecular life sciences area through the newly formed UK Life Sciences Committee, and considers the views expressed below to be representative of biological sciences as a whole.

Purposes of Higher Education (HE)

  1. The Biochemical Society is pleased to note the emphasis in the report that Higher Education is for life. HE aims to produce educated, informed, thinking, mature citizens, and is not merely a training for employment. The Society endorses the report's view that Further, or Higher, Education should be available to all who can benefit from it. Because this will cover a wide range of abilities there needs to be a corresponding breadth and diversity of programmes available.

  2. The rapid advances in areas of science such as molecular genetics are likely to have a major impact on our daily lives through health-care treatments (diagnostic genetic testing) and food production (genetically modified crops), for example. It will become increasingly important to have citizens in all strata of society who have an appreciation of science and are prepared to accept the benefits of such developments, whilst also being able to engage in debate on moral and ethical issues that arise from this work. The UK must also continue to produce research scientists and entrepreneurs of the highest quality if it is to maintain its world-competitive pharmaceutical industry, and its lead position in Europe in small to medium sized biotechnology companies.

Quality and Standards in the expanded HE sector

  1. The expansion of the sector has resulted in degrees being offered to students with a very broad range of abilities by a very heterogeneous set of HE institutions. This has led to a lack of clarity of what the possession of a degree signifies, and a poor outcome for some students. The Society considers it essential to maintain qualifications of international standing.

  2. The Society therefore endorses the recommendation that much of the further expansion in HE should be at sub-degree level [Rec 1], which is more appropriate for many students, and more particularly the recommendation that all courses in Further and HE should fit within a new framework of qualifications [Summary, paragraphs 42,43]. It will be a difficult, but essential, task to define the features characterising awards at the different levels.

  3. The Society has no particular view on the recommendation that more sub-degree provision should take place in Further Education colleges [Rec 67], but would emphasise that this must not place cheapness of provision (eg teaching in large groups) before maintenance of quality. The Society considers that some of the current HE institutions would benefit if their remit included a greater focus on sub-degree provision, recognising the need for a diversity in courses to cater for students of different abilities. There is a serious question about the acceptance of credit accumulation and transfer between institutions on a national scale, but this will be aided if all courses have to fit within the qualifications framework, and all have a 'programme specification' [Rec 21] indicating clearly the intended outcome of the course.

  4. The Society supports strongly the recommendation that the new Quality Assurance Agency should establish a code of practice concerning quality assurance, standards verification, and the maintenance of the qualifications framework, which all institutions must follow as a requirement for funding [Rec 24]. However, the Society would hope that with this code of practice in place the Agency could then have a lighter, and less intrusive, touch so as to ease the burden of bureaucracy currently falling on institutions.

  5. The Society is aware of the finding of the HEQC Graduate Standards Programme that standards are not comparable across the HE sector. Its own recent research has confirmed that Biological Sciences Departments rely almost exclusively on external examiners as guarantors of standards. The Society can therefore appreciate the recommendation of the report that external examiners should have to be drawn from a pool of trained, approved staff [Rec 25]. However, the requirement that external examiners in this pool would have to be released for up to 60 working days a year is difficult for science subjects since it is unlikely that the current group of examiners-research active professors and heads of department-will be able to give this amount of time. This could lead to the external examiner pool becoming a semi-professional sub-group of staff who lack the standing and acceptance of current examiners, resulting in a serious loss of faith in the system. The Biochemical Society is addressing the problems of external examining and standards in seminars for heads of teaching and external examiners to be held over the winter, and would welcome interest and participation by staff in related disciplines.

Vocational qualifications

  1. The pharmaceutical industry, and other types of bio-industry, have pointed out on a number of occasions the recent difficulties experienced in recruiting good quality, technically trained, staff who have had access to modern biochemical equipment. The low esteem of vocational qualifications results in failure to attract good students. Many institutions formerly offering vocational qualifications have tended to switch to more academic degree courses. It should be noted that both vocational and academic courses in a technical discipline such as biochemistry need to be supported by intensive, high quality practical tuition, and this is expensive to provide.
  2. The incorporation of vocational and academic awards into a single framework for HE should benefit the esteem of vocational awards, as should the opportunity for individuals to progress to higher levels of vocational awards in a series of clearly defined stages throughout a career [Summary, paragraphs 42 and 43]. The recommendation that institutions develop a programme specification that states clearly the intended outcome for each qualification [Rec 21], and that each course must meet a recognised standard, should go some way to answering the criticism that vocational courses lack rigour. Ultimately, the esteem of vocational awards depends on their acceptance by good quality students, universities and employers
  3. The question of esteem of vocational awards needs to be addressed at the level of secondary education also. Professor Smithers (Brunel University) pointed out recently that advanced GNVQs are not establishing themselves well in subjects such as science where there is an A-level alternative.
  4. The strong message to the Dearing Inquiry from employers that they would welcome work experience in graduate applicants [Summary, paragraph 39] is ironic in view of the difficulty that institutions currently experience in placing sandwich students. Economic pressures make it difficult for businesses to devote the time and effort to training and supervising these students, and this must be particularly so for the small to medium sized businesses that made the strongest call for work experience. It perhaps needs some centrally co-ordinated scheme, coupled with some form of tax relief for training, to encourage businesses to participate.

Difficulty in training to a research standard in a three year degree

  1. It has become increasingly difficult to train students in biological sciences to a research standard in the conventional three year degree course, due chiefly to the more varied background of student entrants and the inability to provide practical instruction using modern equipment. The drive to broaden 16-19 years education, coupled with the recommendation of the report that all degree courses should include training in numeracy, literacy, communication and IT skills [Summary, paragraph 38] is likely to increase this difficulty. But the report clearly envisages that the normal degree length will remain at three years.
  2. Biological Sciences Departments are faced with the dual challenge of being able to provide in-depth, quality practical training for students intending a research career, and broader courses, perhaps containing less practical work, for students not intending to specialise. The present degree system, whereby both groups receive the same training, is inefficient and expensive in terms of the cost of practical instruction. The Society's own surveys of employment of biochemistry graduates show that about 50% of first degree graduates and at least 70% of PhDs remain within biochemistry.
  3. The recommendations that institutions develop programmes that vary in breadth and depth [Rec 15], and programme specifications that identify potential stepping-off points [Rec 21] are thus welcomed as offering more flexibility to non-subject specialists. They may also free more resource for supplying quality practical training to students continuing in research careers. This strategy will only succeed if parity of esteem for the varied programmes is achieved, and if appropriate students are encouraged nationally to take the broader, less research-focused degrees that are envisaged.
  4. This will not, however, resolve the problem of training to a research standard in three years, and the Society emphasises that it must become accepted that from university entrance to completion of PhD will normally take seven years, with the consequential implication for funding.

Funding issues

  1. Members of the Select Committee will be aware of the funding deficits identified by the Dearing report and by recent papers from the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, so they are not repeated here. Shortage of funding has reduced the ability of biological sciences departments to provide quality practical instruction for students, and training on modern equipment at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The latter deficiency was noted in evidence from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry to the Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology investigation into The Innovation-Exploitation Barrier. The Society would stress the importance of measures to put right past under-investment in research infrastructure in order to maintain the vitality of the university sector.
  2. The report contained a number of proposals to increase efficiency and reduce costs, particularly for research. The Society welcomes the way that these were identified, but prescriptive solutions not applied. The expected concentration of research facilities in particular places [Main report, paragraph 11.95], and the call for joint and collaborative activities between institutions, and for inter-disciplinary work [Summary, paragraph 58] are best left to the sector for action in consultation with funding bodies. Likewise, the Research Assessment Exercise is an effective instrument for achieving selectivity in research funding [Rec 34], but will need to be modified in order to remove some of the well-recognised inequalities of treatment. The recommendations made to improve the stature of teaching, and overcome the disproportionate funding reward for research, may also reduce the pressure on institutions to engage in research. However, the Society is concerned that further more prescriptive measures should not be applied centrally to achieve greater focusing of research without considering the longer term effects on the underpinning research base.
  3. It is not the place of the Society to comment on the introduction of student loans to cover maintenance and part of tuition fees. The Society is concerned, however, that the burden of debt should not deter graduates from continuing to research training since this would hinder the future success of bio-industry. Further attention also needs to be given to improving career prospects for scientists continuing in university research. As the report made clear, income from charging tuition fees will be insufficient to bridge the funding gap. Furthermore, the Society is concerned by reports that the money saved by the government introducing student loans is unlikely to feed back into HE for at least a number of years, whereas the funding crisis is acute.
  4. The recommendation to government to establish a fund of 400-500 million to support infrastructure, financed jointly by government and industry [Rec 34], is fine in principle. However, industry made clear its objection to paying into a general fund over which it had no control, and from which it received no individual benefit, both during the sitting of the Dearing Inquiry, and since the publication of the report. It is therefore clear that substantial funding from industry and charities will require government incentives, and that the government will need contingency plans to make more public funding available.

The Biochemical Society,
59 Portland Place,
London W1B 1QW;
Tel: 020 7580 5530; Fax: 020 7637 3626;