Synergy of academic and vocational values

The year 2018 represents an important milestone in the history of biomedical sciences education. It is the 40th anniversary of the first UK graduates emerging from honours degree programmes with a primary focus on biomedical sciences – then known as ‘medical laboratory science’. It is also the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Heads of University Centres of Biomedical Sciences (HUCBMS), the body which represents the biomedical sciences academic and research community.

The 1970s and 80s were transformative decades in the development of biomedical sciences as an academic discipline as universities and polytechnics developed innovative degree programmes beyond the confines of traditional technical education. The pioneers of degree programmes in biomedical sciences represented a combination of entrepreneurial and visionary academics and progressive members of the then medical laboratory sciences profession. There was at best indifference, and in some cases active hostility, from the relevant health departments across the UK.

The first such degree programme was at the University of Portsmouth. This was quickly followed by degrees at the universities of Bradford, Ulster and Cardiff Metropolitan (then Cardiff Institute of Higher Education).  

The Portsmouth and Cardiff programmes were developed in institutions that had previously offered sub-degree programmes in biomedical sciences and were led by individuals who had previously worked as medical laboratory scientists, while Bradford and Ulster were universities with no history in the subject area and led by scientists from traditional academic and research backgrounds. Unsurprisingly the Bradford and Ulster programmes adopted a wider definition of biomedical sciences, including subject areas and emerging disciplines largely absent previously from the curriculum of biomedical sciences education. They also deliberately targeted their graduate output towards an employment market wider than NHS laboratories. The above four centres were the only specialist degree providers for some years, but gradually other universities added similar degrees to their portfolio, together with more specialist subjects.

It became clear from the earliest outputs of biomedical sciences graduates from all four institutions that while satisfying, respectively, the accreditation and approval requirements of the professional and regulatory bodies, they had a wide variety of career options beyond the NHS including the biopharmaceutical industry, biotechnology, research, academia etc. Therefore, biomedical sciences degrees, unlike those designed for other health professions, were never wholly vocational in nature, but provided the breadth and depth of degree-level education to satisfy a range of public and private sector employers at home and abroad. The success of such graduates in reaching the highest echelons of their chosen careers from academia to the NHS and industry demonstrates the wisdom of the approach taken by the degree founders.

            By the mid-1980s many polytechnics were offering honours degree programmes in biomedical sciences, and Ulster had developed the first Masters programme, focusing on interdisciplinary subjects including genetics, molecular biology and immunology. The broader definition of biomedical sciences adopted by universities and subsequently promoted by its professional association, HUCBMS, was reinforced by the Quality Assurance Agency’s Biomedical Sciences Benchmark Statement of 2015 which included not only generic and vocational biomedical sciences degrees but also programmes in pharmacology, nutrition and physiology.

            The Modernising Scientific Careers (MSC) initiative, developed by the Department of Health in 2010, had an initially perturbing effect upon biomedical sciences education as it threatened to disband the established route of biomedical science graduates holding accredited and approved degrees into positions as biomedical scientists in NHS laboratories. The laudable intention of MSC was to “provide a career framework for healthcare science professionals by providing an education and training programme that is clear and coherent – enabling individuals to move throughout healthcare science without being sidelined and avoiding risk of career dead ends”. This involved the establishment of a common structure for the variety of scientific disciplines working within the NHS including the plethora of currently non-regulated groups.

            The MSC team developed guidelines for degree programmes to meet the perceived education and training requirements for the healthcare science practitioner grade. In the case of biomedical scientists these proposed programmes were designed to be at honours degree level and named BSc (Hons) Healthcare Science (life sciences). Without commenting on the academic quality or coherence of the programmes, nor seeking to decry the efforts of those who contributed earnestly to the process, it was clear from their indicative content and suggested learning outcomes that the requirements were already being met, and exceeded, by the hugely successful existing integrated (ie including professional placement) biomedical sciences degree programmes. It was difficult to comprehend the rationale behind developing an entirely new product for biomedical scientists when a ‘fit for purpose’, academically respected, unchallenged, and highly popular brand, open to modification as appropriate, already existed and which had professional body (Institute of Biomedical Science) accreditation and regulatory body (Health and Care Professions Council) approval.

In such circumstances the ‘healthcare science (life sciences)’ programme student numbers would have had to match perpetually unreliable NHS manpower planning figures, as the title was unlikely to have much currency elsewhere. Ultimately there was acceptance, driven largely by employers, of equivalence of existing qualifications,

            Predictably, the healthcare science (life science) programmes ran into difficulties in terms of student recruitment and employers have continued to place greater value on the tried and tested product, namely biomedical sciences degree programmes. These continue to flourish, remain highly valued by a range of employers (including the NHS), and are in the majority of cases the most popular bioscience/life science programmes offered by their host universities.

            Biomedical sciences provides a model for university science education at its best. The flexibility and durability of the system initiated in the 1970s has withstood the competition of an entirely vocational and government sponsored alternative. It demonstrates that it is possible and desirable to combine the highest standards of academic programme curriculum design with vocational needs. It has yielded a product (biomedical sciences degree) which meets the needs and aspirations of a range of employers including the NHS and provides graduates with the flexibility to face the challenges posed by a changing and uncertain work environment.

Professor Gerry McKenna MRIA FRSB CBiol FIBMS CSci

Professor McKenna is Vice President of the Royal Irish Academy. He is President Emeritus and Honorary Executive Secretary of HUCBMS, and a former Vice Chancellor and President of the University of Ulster.


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