This post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.
As readers may be aware, the Society of Biology (SoB) is currently running a pilot accreditation scheme for bioscience degrees, initially focussing on biochemistry and in vivo sciences. Yesterday, stakeholders were consulted on the expansion of the programme, to discuss which areas of biology the scheme should next be expanded to. In fact, we actually spent a lot of time discussing the aims and workings of the scheme, which aren’t very easy to frame (or so it turns out).
The target of the SoB Accreditation Working Group is to develop a scheme that concentrates on learning outcomes, not on accrediting knowledge. Essentially the aim is to accredit courses with a significant research component (amongst other criteria), which validate students who take these degrees as research-ready and having the necessary transferrable skills. This laudable approach stems from the requirements of employers, differing from, for example, the Royal Society of Chemistry’s accreditation scheme, which (in its own words) recognises courses “of a high standard in terms of intellectual challenge and content.” As Working Group member Professor Simon van Heyningen put it in yesterday’s consultation: “It’s about what our students can do, because this is what employers say they want.”
This thought process lead to the development of the idea that accreditation should be subject specific, referring to the different skills necessary in different fields, which is where the difficulty arises. My earlier post on Professor J.B.S. Haldane suggests that we might generally be better off if we embrace the overlap and cross-relevance of different sciences. Along a related line, if we are to accredit ecology degrees as separate from zoology – acknowledging of course that they will be different in content – what knock-on effect might this have on those who study zoology and then move into ecology? Further issues arise where subjects span numerous fields, such as genetics. Some attendees felt that it might be better to have a general bioscience accreditation of core learning outcomes, with added specialisms effectively bolted on (subject-specific experts could be used to judge and validate these).
In reality, the scheme will – at least initially – be fairly exclusive, although it might be hoped that more universities adjust (and hopefully improve) their courses to fit the accreditation criteria. I say this warily as too many accredited courses would effectively devalue the system, and as noted, the scheme is not about knowledge gained but about skills and the transferable ‘learning outcomes’. Under the current proposals, standard three year degrees would not actually be eligible for accreditation. A further criterion is that students must spend a continuous six months actively doing research, usually in an industrial setting. This is a second area in which complexities arise. If accreditation drives universities and students towards four-year courses (potentially five in Scotland), how will the number of industrial placements be able to absorb the increasing demand? Will less well-off students be unable to afford to study an accredited degree? Will strong three-year degrees – such as those with the required laboratory component done in non-continuous blocks, or those which are effectively compressed four year degrees with shorter holidays – be penalised? There will be a big challenge in marketing a final scheme, to avoid the creation or perception of a two-tier system. This is not the intention, as the many students who do not intend to pursue a research career would not necessarily benefit from taking an accredited degree, given that the assessment criteria are research focussed. But the system will need to be flexible and adaptable to match shifting demands.
Unfortunately more questions seemed to be raised than answered, although the results of the pilot scheme should provide useful information (February and March 2012). Following this, the direction and aims need to be pinned down. There is a lot to think about and significant challenges and decisions lie ahead. If successful, we could be looking at an improvement in the quality of research employment-ready graduates. The idea is very laudable, but it needs to be ready.
You can follow news on the accreditation scheme on the Society of Biology website.