Audit of Practical Work: How Good is Undergraduate Training?

A new study undertaken by the Society of Biology and the Biochemical Society has concluded that whilst most university teachers across the UK are happy with the quantity and quality of practical scientific training in the biosciences at undergraduate level, challenges remain to maintaining provision, most notably the lack of preparation at school level and competing demands of research and teaching.

The report, “Audit of Practical Work Undertaken by Undergraduate Bioscience Students across the UK Higher Education Sector”, is based on questionnaires and telephone interviews conducted with staff representing twenty-two degree programmes across sixteen UK higher education institutions. Questions focused on the amount and nature of practical work within undergraduate biosciences programmes, with the exception of fieldwork, which has been the subject of other recent studies. The report aims to establish an important benchmark against which future trends in practical provision can be measured.

With “excellent training in practical work” deemed “key to the proper education of the next generation of life scientists”, the broad conclusions of the report are encouraging. The majority of the staff surveyed reported that they deem the quality and quantity of practical provision within their institution to be adequate or better than adequate, with students receiving an average of 500 hours relevant laboratory based training over the course of an undergraduate degree. Furthermore, respondents perceived that this provision has changed for the better over the last five to ten years. While practical provision varied across institutions, there were no clear distinctions between pre- and post-92 universities, nor by nation. Every degree programme surveyed enabled students to pursue a discovery based, exploratory practical project in their final year.

However, the study also raised a number of concerns. First, the respondents consistently reported that preparation for practical work at school level was inadequate, to the extent that this was now expected, with remedial mechanisms in place to bring students up to the necessary skill level. Yet in combination with increasing student numbers, this lack of preparation represents a significant threat to the maintenance of current levels of provision, with staff worried about their ability to cope with this extra demand.

Second, a number of barriers were identified that pose a threat to the maintenance of current levels of provision, and limit its improvement. Recurring concerns highlighted included resource costs and staff time, as well competing demands on laboratory space for research and teaching. Of significant concern is the perception from academic staff that investing time in teaching risks having a detrimental impact on their personal research and hence promotion opportunities.  The report thus underlines the importance of continued investment in practical training at undergraduate level.

Overall, the audit of practical work draws similar conclusions to the recently published study of bioscience fieldwork within UK higher education by Mauchline et al:  that provision is relatively stable and remains an important part of undergraduate degree programmes, yet care must be taken to ensure that the threats to this provision continue to be closely monitored and appropriately addressed. The BES is currently planning a HE teaching conference next year that will focus on practical ecology and fieldwork.  Please get in touch if you would like to get involved.