At the same time as struggling with the Covid pandemic the world has been convulsed by the protests and issues associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. The pharmaceutical industry and the higher education courses servicing that industry have also been touched deeply by these matters. Much has been written elsewhere about responses to the pandemic but here I shall concentrate on how higher education can respond effectively to issues of social justice and tailor its programmes to enable all individuals within it to reach their maximum potential regardless of colour, creed or cultural background.
Kingston University has as one of its Key Performance Indicators the narrowing and ultimate elimination of the regrettably sector-wide BAME attainment gap (now more inclusively called “awarding gap”). Interventions to achieve this laudable goal have concentrated on both academic staff and student outcomes. Staff for example, can take advantage of Unconscious Bias Training, Inclusive Curriculum Workshops and Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity projects. Students are enjoined to build the curriculum with academic staff through paid internship opportunities in both the scientific research and pedagogical realms and to avail themselves of the many opportunities they are presented with outside of their formal curriculum.
The Pharmaceutical Science degree at KU has been a wholehearted participant in many aspects of these interventions. This has recently resulted in the course being shortlisted for the Guardian University Awards in the category of Retention, Support and Student Outcomes. This is no mean feat due to the specific particularities of the Pharmaceutical Science degree at KU. For instance, many of the students who enrol on this programme only do so after not being able to get onto the MPharm Pharmacy programme. They do so with the intention of transferring onto the MPharm after a successful first year on the Pharm Sci programme. However, due to the high entry requirements for the MPharm only around 10% of the Pharmaceutical Science students are able to transfer at the end of their first year. This leaves the course team facing, at the beginning of the second year, a significant minority of students who feel they have doubly failed, are disappointed and disengaged from the programme they unwillingly find themselves on, with no idea of what the degree suits them for in terms of graduate employment opportunities.
Turning around these disaffected students has been a pressing and urgent concern given that academic life in the UK is characterised by a slavish attention to course metrics and external markers such as the National Student Survey (NSS) and Guardian League Tables etc. Consequently, a number of interventions have been purposefully employed to make the students more engaged, more satisfied and more employable.
A peer mentoring programme has had the double benefit of targeting both first and second year students. Here second year students are paid to mentor first year students in timetabled sessions on crucial modules. This has achieved incredible results for the first year students in that 98% of participating students passed their first year in comparison to 75% of non-participating first year students. This result also extended to students entering university with a BTEC rather than an A level qualification and commuting students. Both of these sets of students have traditionally been very hard to reach students in terms of targeted interventions. This scheme also allowed the second year mentors to develop a sense of their programme providing them with a vibrant learning community and cohort identity.
Many students on the course expressed their wish to undertake employment not related to laboratory-based work upon graduating but didn’t really appreciate what jobs the Pharmaceutical Science degree equipped them for. To tackle this problem the course team sought accreditations with external bodies to provide a “seal of approval” to the degrees and to provide sources of information and networking opportunities to the undergraduates. Thus, the course became only the second in the country to be accredited by the Academy of Pharmaceutical Science and the first in the country to be accredited by The Organisation for Professionals in Regulatory Affairs. The latter accreditation in particular, led to the formation of a unique new degree route in the UK, Pharmaceutical Science with Regulatory Affairs and “science in a suit” type job opportunities.
Use of alumni role models proved to be another positive addition to the toolkit of strategies used to engage students. Kingston University attracts a very diverse range of students some of whom may not be used to the unwritten conventions of UK academic life and lacking in economic and social capital. Use of relatable role models from the alumni population showed students that people just like them could get a valuable degree and a good job in the pharmaceutical industry by full engagement with their degree programme.
This broad programme of change has resulted in some very good metrics for the course. Not only has progression improved from the tricky first year due to the peer mentoring programme but NSS Overall Satisfaction scores have been above 90% for a number of years now. Most hearteningly, recently released graduate employment data shows that graduates from this programme are very likely to obtain graduate level jobs soon after graduating (78.7%) with 98% of all students getting some type of employment. These metrics make this programme one of the most successful in the country. Most importantly however the course has seen the removal of ALL attainment gaps, so that no identifiably separate group of students does worse than any other (including genders, BAME students, mature students, students leaving care environments). This means that by making the whole curriculum more inclusive and being attentive to the needs of each individual student, all student groups have been empowered to reach their full potential.
Nick Freestone Course Leader, undergraduate degree in pharmaceutical science Associate Professor of Physiology and Pharmacology Kingston University
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