Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Centre for Bioscience, part of the Higher Education Academy

  By way of introduction, the Centre for Bioscience promotes and supports high quality learning, teaching and assessment in UK higher education as part of The Higher Education Academy network. The aim of the Centre is to support learning and teaching at a discipline level recognising that for many staff in higher education it is at this level where networking and exchange takes place.

  In principle, this response covers issues in the teaching of bioscience in higher education but specifically refers to examples within Biochemistry and Pharmacology.

  (1)  The previous suggestions about changes in the weightings given to science subjects in the teaching funding formula would have been disastrous for Biochemistry and Pharmacology departments. The equipment (mass spec, DNA sequencing etc) and running expenses (eg for cell culture and molecular biology) costs are similar to those for Chemistry.

  (2)  The mechanism by which Chemistry (and Physics) Departments [whether teaching only or not] might be supported should be by encouraging students to take these courses rather than funding the departments directly. This is a difficult problem. Students might be encouraged by bursaries as is done for PGCE, but they also need encouragement from their schools to apply to take degrees in Chemistry and Physics. Public relations and outreach activities are also important in informing school students about science, and children need to see role models. This latter has clearly happened with respect to forensics and TV programmes.

  (3)  With respect to teaching-only departments, the material taught needs to be up to date and cutting edge. Teaching needs to be linked with research in some sort of way, even if the university teachers themselves are not actually doing active research at the time (but have done it in the past). We have collaborated recently in the Higher Education Academy project Linking Teaching and Research which suggests ways of doing this, and which also features a number of case-studies []. Engagement with research and with how research is carried out is important in the training of university science students. The QAA Benchmark statements for Bioscience and for Agriculture, Forestry, Agricultural Sciences, Food Sciences and Consumer Sciences, stress that an understanding of how research is carried out is vital, and specifically mention the value of the final-year research project, which is offered by practically all bioscience departments, as a way of achieving this.

  (4)  With respect to students reading for bioscience degrees (especially Biochemistry and Pharmacology) rather than Chemistry or Physics degrees, a knowledge of Chemistry (and some Physics) is vital in order to comprehend the subjects and to progress. The techniques of analysis, etc, used by biochemists and pharmacologists are principally chemical ones (see below). Our contacts in the pharmaceutical industry regard students' present knowledge as inadequate, for example. There is requirement for imaginative service teaching by Chemistry departments, and the importance of this should be recognised (financially). Chemistry departments have in the past not been good at teaching Chemistry to bioscience students in an imaginative way: teaching "Chemistry for Biologists" requires different emphases than for straight Chemistry or indeed for "Chemistry for Engineers". The provision of service courses is of course recognised by universities by a distribution of financial resource, but the total financial cake is the same: it is simply divided in different ways under the present system.

  (5)  It is noticeable that students leaving school take Biology courses (including Biochemistry and Pharmacology, but also Forensic Science) because they think that these are "easier" and are actually more interesting subjects than Chemistry. Students think that by taking "easier", less rigorous subjects they will more readily achieve higher grades. However, although they may indeed achieve better grades at "A" level, chemical knowledge is vital to their studies in Biochemistry and Pharmacology. Here again more information at the school level is what is needed to get them to understand this. This will not come about while Physics and some Chemistry in schools are taught in a way which students find difficult to relate to their everyday experiences, often by Biology graduates with little chemical background, or by Physics and Chemistry graduates of low ability. The PGCE scheme should go some way to correcting this, and the Royal Society of Chemistry is also helping, but there is a long way to go.

January 2005

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