Sarah Jones, Head of Education and Academic Liaison, reflects on the impact the Wakeham Review and the Higher Education White Paper, both published today, will have on education and skills in science.
The ABPI 2015 report Bridging the skills gap in the biopharmaceutical industry was a key piece of evidence used by the Wakeham Review team in their analysis of STEM degree provision and graduate employability and the review echoes our concerns over biological science graduates mathematical skills and raises concerns over the wider employability of graduates from biological sciences.
The review found evidence of concern around the level of maths students have before entry to a Biological Science degree as well as the level of exposure to quantitative analysis and statistics during the undergraduate programmes. It also identified the difficulties in recruiting people with expertise in bioinformatics, health informatics, statistics and data mining. Lack of awareness of opportunities in these emerging areas may be one reason why recruitment is so challenging. As well as the Review, the recent HE White Paper acknowledges that students often don't have access to the best information to make choices about what they study and the benefits that they can expect to gain from those choices.
We agree with the recommendation of the Review that work is needed to explore, in more detail, the relatively poor employability outcomes for Biological Science graduates and set out solutions for improving these outcomes. We hope that this work will, as suggested earlier in the report, investigate the extent to which degree programmes include qualitative methods, and whether they prepare students to apply them to practical problems.
The Wakeham Review also found evidence that both students and graduates were, in some circumstances, suffering from a lack of information on the full range of career opportunities that might be available to them in industry. Our career website aims to provide extensive information on opportunities within the biopharmaceutical sector, however students at school and college also need personal advice and guidance to help them select the most appropriate further study option, and those studying for a degree often require help to understand how the knowledge and skills they have acquired could be used. We agree that action is needed to address the current inadequate career information, advice and guidance available for these groups of students.
The Wakeham Review findings also reflect those of ABPI when other employability skills are considered. The Review noted that 'soft skills' and 'work readiness' were raised as areas of concern and noted that these shouldn't be delivered as 'bolt on' components of an undergraduate degree. It is important to address concerns that were raised by both HE providers and employers around the quality and nature of graduates' wider skill sets, including their practical skills and aptitude for team-working.
The HE White Paper sets out proposals for monitoring the quality of teaching that undergraduates receive. Teaching quality is vitally important for undergraduates, as it is for school students. Although the detail of how teaching quality will be measured and monitored is still to be devised, we have concerns that the proposed reward at the institutional level won't influence the learning experience of students unless individual lecturers and departments receive reward and recognition for their efforts.
The Wakeham Review rightly recognises the role that employer input into courses and provision of work experience placements can play in producing employable graduates. The HE White Paper indicates that the success of degree apprenticeships will depend on employers and universities working together; we agree that this is an important future development to help address the skills concerns of our sector and we look forward to working with universities in this area. At the end of 2015 ABPI member companies had around 600 students and 100 graduate interns undertaking placements in industry. However we recognise that there are many more students seeking placements than are able to secure them. The question is, can our industry be doing more to help them?