Submission from the Biochemical Society to the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (Dearing Inquiry)

Executive Summary

The way that higher education (HE) has been expanded and made available to a much larger and more heterogeneous student population, whilst being essentially under funded, has had the following adverse effects on the Biological Sciences: devaluing the reputation of the Honours degree by failing to monitor standards adequately across the sector; making it difficult to train students to a research standard in the conventional 3 year degree; making it difficult for institutions to maintain infrastructure and purchase up to date equipment; threatening the quality of research by spreading funding too thinly; and reducing the number of vocationally qualified individuals by making academic degrees more attractive and accessible.

In order to address these issues the Biochemical Society recommends that
  • the 3 year degree should be replaced by a family of courses of up to 4 years duration to cater for the needs of non-specialist and specialist students. The shorter courses should have a reduced practical content consistent with their objectives, and include more focus on transferable skills
  • the Biochemical Society should be involved in auditing Departmental facilities for teaching and research, standards and quality assurance
  • students intending a research career should have a fourth year of intensive practical study, by competitive entry
  • future funding mechanisms should encourage diversity of mission so that institutions build on their individual strengths
  • funding for research students should be restricted as recommended by the Harris Review of Postgraduate Education, but with safeguards to maintain dynamism
  • esteem of vocational courses needs to be enhanced by demonstrating a clearer relevance to a future career, and by professional and other interested bodies and industry being more involved in curriculum development and quality assurance.

Introduction

The fundamental importance of the biological sciences for Britain's economic competitiveness, and for enhancing the quality of life of society in general, is confirmed by biological sciences and biotechnology contributing importantly to five of the eleven generic SET priorities identified in the Technology Foresight programme. At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry is recognised as being outstandingly successful in improving health-care and in contributing to the British economy, and Britain leads Europe in the number of small, developing, biotechnology enterprises. Biochemistry training in higher education is key to maintaining impetus and competitiveness in these industries, as well as being a means of providing numerate and scientifically-aware graduates in all walks of life. Industrial surveys predict a continuing strong demand for good quality biochemistry graduates. (It should be noted that the term 'biochemistry' is used to represent molecular life sciences as a whole, including disciplines such as molecular biology and biotechnology).

The Biochemical Society, with some 9500 members in academic institutions, public authority bodies and industry, promotes the advancement of the science of Biochemistry, in active collaboration with other societies representing cellular and molecular life sciences. The Society concerns itself with all aspects of education and training of cellular and molecular life scientists, including curriculum development and teaching technology. In its submission to the Inquiry the Biochemical Society fully endorses the earlier response of the Institute of Biology, and in addition focuses attention on the points below.

Current Concerns

  1. A uniform degree structure being offered by a very heterogeneous set of HE institutes. This has lead to questions of quality assurance and standards. The Society considers it essential to maintain qualifications of international standing. Furthermore, the current Bachelor's degree does not differentiate between the needs of those non-specialist students requiring an awareness of science but limited practical expertise and a further group of students requiring high quality practical and extended first degree knowledge.

  2. Increasing inability to train undergraduates to a research standard in the conventional three year degree course. Due to:
    • recent advances increasing the size and complexity of the subject
    • more varied background of student entrants, frequently with a lesser grounding in maths and chemistry, in particular, than before.

  3. Inability to provide sufficient practical training, particularly a research project, in the conventional three year degree. Due to:
    • decreased staff: student ratio
    • shortfall of equipment, cost of reagents.

  4. Insufficient funding available to maintain infrastructure and replace ageing equipment in many institutions.

  5. Insufficient funding available to meet the aspirations of all institutions and all students.

  6. The low esteem of vocational qualifications fails to attract good students, and institutions formerly supplying these have tended to switch to more academic courses. This has resulted in key sectors such as the pharmaceutical industry experiencing difficulty in recruiting staff with appropriate technical skills

Recommendations

  1. Inability to train students to a research standard in three years/ inability to provide sufficient practical training. Current moves in 16-19 education favour a broader curriculum, and in addition, there is an increasing number of mature students entering HE, thus making it likely that entrants will continue to have a lesser grounding in the sciences and maths. It is therefore recommended that
    • there should be a minimum of seven years study from undergraduate entry to PhD
    • there should be restricted entry to a practical-intensive year for students qualified, and intending, to commence a PhD or a career in research
    • the length and content of undergraduate courses should be reconsidered to reflect the needs of both specialist and non-specialist biochemistry students, and provide exit points between years 2 or 3 and 4 (years 3 or 4 and 5 in Scotland). A working party of the Biochemical Society has recently recommended a core curriculum for HE that could form the scientific basis of all courses. In addition, the courses should extend students' transferable skills such as team working, communication and information technology
    • shorter courses should contain less practical tuition than current degrees, and practical work should be designed to develop teamwork and communication skills that are valuable whatever the student's future career. At entry to university it is likely that many students will not have a clear idea as to whether they are suited to a career in research, and exposure to practical work as part of the maturing process of university life is essential to aid that decision. At a later stage of the course students not intending a research career could opt for modules to develop alternative skills rather than continue practical work
    • a working party should address and recommend on the structure of these courses, and on requirements for entry to the practical-intensive year.
    These are similar to the recommendations of the Institute of Biology

  2. Quality assurance and standards. The Society is concerned that with the wide range of provision of higher education and the Honours degree being the major shared qualification there is ample scope for confusion on the standing of the qualification. The Bachelor's degree title itself has become less important than the reputation of the institution awarding it. The Society recommends that
    • the Inquiry should reconsider the range of first qualifications in higher education, perhaps abandoning the concept of a degree with Honours unless the work of HEQC can define the essential distinguishing features of the Honours component. More intermediate qualifications are required
    • in order to make undergraduate qualifications more transparent to students, funding bodies and employers a typological framework should be established similar to that proposed in the Harris Review of Postgraduate Education, indicating entry requirements, type of course, and expected outcome ability. The title of the qualification should reflect clearly the type and level of the course, and use of the Bachelor degree title should be more restricted. These courses would meet the needs of different users according to item 1 above. It is recommended that courses offering similar provision should be considered together in order to facilitate generic standardisation
    • the Biochemical Society, in association with sister societies and the Institute of Biology, should be involved in auditing facilities for teaching and learning so as to aid quality assurance and the maintenance of similar standards across the sector.

  3. Insufficient funding available to maintain infrastructure. This is clearly not a problem exclusive to biochemistry, although this discipline is one that demands investment in expensive teaching and research equipment and in expensive reagents. It is essential that funding is available to update equipment to meet modern Health and Safety at Work standards (a problem pointed out in August 1996 by the Save British Science organisation) and so as to address the concern expressed to the Biochemical Society by The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry that graduates joining the industry increasingly lack practical experience and skills.

  4. Insufficient funding available to meet aspirations of all institutions. The Society recommends that
    • the Inquiry includes in its brief a fundamental assessment of the purposes of higher education in order to judge whether the sector has expanded in a logical or desirable way to meet the needs of society and of the economy
    • future funding mechanisms should encourage institutions to identify and define clearly their missions and strengths, and to build on those strengths rather than attempting to compete in all sectors of higher education
    • in accordance with the recommendations of the Harris Review of Postgraduate Education, HEFCE funding for research students should be limited to those Departments ranked 3 or higher in the RAE, or that demonstrate the capacity to obtain significant research grants. In order to maintain dynamism and not to stifle the development of a research base in the newer universities the Society considers it essential that HEFCE DevR funding continues to be available to encourage effective collaboration between small groups of excellent researchers in such institutions, so creating groupings better equipped to perform innovative research, compete for grants, and demonstrate the facilities for receiving funding for research students
    • distance learning should not be introduced on a large scale for immature undergraduates. Whilst this may be an identifiable way of reducing teaching costs the Society considers that such students require contact with teachers and the maturing effect of the university experience. On the other hand, distance learning could play an important role in refresher courses for adults and in continuing professional development, and the Society would be keen to participate in developments in this area.

  5. Enhancing the esteem of vocational qualifications. The Society recommends that
    • the Inquiry should build on the foundations of the review of 16-19 education which promoted the vocational route to higher education, but seek also to promote to students the value of higher vocational awards (rather than vocational courses at 16-19 being an alternative route to an academic qualification)
    • the Inquiry should encourage more collaboration between industry, interested bodies such as Public Health Authorities, and institutes of higher education having a vocational mission so that courses are more orientated to meeting the needs of the work place, and prospective students can see a clearer route into employment through a vocational qualification
    • professional bodies, interested public bodies and industry should become more involved in the establishment of curricula for advanced and higher GNVQs and in quality assessment in order to overcome a current criticism of vocational courses that they lack rigour and adequate monitoring of standards
    • the working party noted in Recommendation 1 should address the provision of essential practical training for technical staff in HE vocational courses.


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