Biomedical science practical studies recognised as essential
The Minister of State for Universities, Michelle Donelan MP, issued a letter on 30 December requesting universities to restrict the number of practical students returning from 4 January to those who are reading subjects in a number of subject areas, including courses which require Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body (PSRB) assessments and or mandatory activity which is scheduled for January and which cannot be rescheduled. Restrictions and requirements for COVID-19 testing are described in detail.
On 7 January the Department of Education published updated guidance on the plans for students returning to, and starting higher education, in spring term 2021. It has outlined that during the period of national lockdown, Higher Education providers should significantly restrict the number of students returning to face-to-face teaching from January 2021, and reduce the numbers accessing university facilities wherever possible. Providers should prioritise the return to face-to-face teaching only for courses which are most important to be delivered in-person in order to support the pipeline of future key workers.
The letter from the Minister and the guidance identified subjects in allied to medicine/health and social care courses where students have been identified as critical workers who have played a key part in the NHS response during the pandemic and may return to university in January. Courses/programmes identified include those for registered allied health professions and the Healthcare Science Practitioner Training Programme. It did not include biomedical science undergraduate degree programmes which provide the majority of graduates for the pathology laboratory service which has proven to be critical in supporting the COVID-19 testing programme.
The Presidents of the Heads of University Centres of Biomedical Sciences (HUCBMS) and the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS) responded through a joint letter, stating that while her letter and the associated guidance may be interpreted broadly to include biomedical science along with the AHPs and the healthcare science practitioner programmes, this is not the interpretation being followed by a number of universities.
The joint letter highlighted that the diagnosis of COVID-19 and the monitoring of COVID-19 patients and their response to treatment relies on trained and competent biomedical scientists, as did the development of the vaccines. To ignore the value and importance of producing adequate outputs of graduates from biomedical science degrees to maintain the pathology workforce and to support biopharmaceutical research and development, could seriously compromise our ability to adequately maintain the health and wellbeing of the UK population as well as economic development in this important sector. It was therefore requested that biomedical science be included explicitly within the list of programmes meeting the criteria to return to university during the pandemic.
The response, from a Senior Policy Advisor at the Minister’s Office, stated:
We appreciate the extremely valuable work that biomedical scientists are doing during the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of biomedical science students being able to continue their practical studies to ensure the pipeline of future biomedical scientists is not disrupted. These courses can continue face-to-face teaching and learning if necessary and we will include ‘biomedical sciences’ specifically in the guidance annex as clarification.
IBMS Executive Head of Education Alan Wainwright commented:
Universities offering IBMS accredited degree in biomedical science are working extremely hard to maintain safe student learning in these difficult times, and have been incredibly creative in ensuring learning outcomes for the programme are being met through blended learning, simulation or rescheduling of practical classes and placements. The omission of Biomedical Science as a named course needed to be addressed so that universities feel enabled to continue to provide classes on campus where there are no other alternatives. It has also provided an opportunity to highlight the important role of Biomedical Scientists in patient investigation and the monitoring for those who are hospitalised by this infection, and, as the demands on pathology services increase, the need to maintain the availability of trained and competent graduates entering into the profession.