Removing awarding gaps: The Kingston University Pharmaceutical Science experience

The Pharmaceutical Science degrees at Kingston University are a popular choice for many students from a BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) background. The degrees are very broad-based courses, with an emphasis on the cultivation of laboratory skills, containing a relatively large amount of pharmacology-related teaching. Students often enrol in these courses after having failed to get onto the very competitive MPharm Pharmacy degree, with the intention of doing well enough in their first year to transfer to the Pharmacy degree. This can be a challenging route to take and, unfortunately, few students make the necessary grades for the transfer. As a consequence, the Pharmaceutical Science team is confronted with a cohort of second-year students who are doubly disappointed (having failed twice to get onto Pharmacy) and uncertain about what the Pharmaceutical Science degree can do for them or what career opportunities exist for them upon graduation.

In response to this, I have developed a number of interventions to encourage a real learning community and sense of ownership about the degree among the students. This has involved the provision of additional opportunities for personal development and extracurricular activities (often paid) and initiated degree pathways that emphasise science careers outside the laboratory context.

At Kingston University, we identified a gap in the provision of undergraduate education in the area of Regulatory Affairs and developed the UK’s first undergraduate module in Regulatory Affairs. This resulted in a Kingston University degree that is currently unique among UK higher education institutions: the BSc (Hons) in Pharmaceutical Science with Regulatory Affairs. It has enabled students to expand their employment horizons, maximise their potential in science outside the experimental laboratory and research environment and learn new transferable skills, especially critical analysis and evaluation.

Alumni inspiration

Another strategy was an alumni programme. The teaching team won funding from the Royal Society of Chemistry to develop case histories of successful alumni in relevant employment (often regulatory affairs). Along with regular alumni-led sessions on employability, this gave undergraduates relatable, ethnically and culturally diverse role models. The students could therefore see that there was a realistic future path for them outside of the institution. After these sessions, many undergraduate students commented on how inspirational the alumni were, and that they now had more confidence in their own career aspirations and the programme as a means of realising their goals.

Peer mentoring

A peer-mentoring intervention also yielded fantastic results, providing tangible benefits for difficult-to-reach student groups such as BTEC (Business and Technology Education Council) students and commuting students. Students who engaged in the scheme had significantly better progression rates to the second year of the degree than non-engaged students (97.6% versus 75%). Engaged students were also more likely to progress after successful re-assessment and less likely to withdraw or fail.

Removing the awarding gap

These innovations have helped remove the BAME awarding gap in Kingston University students on this course. For context, 80.9% of white students nationally received a first or 2:1 in 2018/19, compared with 56.3% of students in the other or black ethnic category. The national pattern of lower BAME attainment compared with other student groups has been seen at Kingston University. The BSc (Hons) Pharmaceutical Science with Regulatory Affairs course and the BSc (Hons) Pharmaceutical Science course from which it originates are popular choices that attract students from around the world, which creates a culturally diverse learning environment for our students. We decided to explicitly take into account the learning needs of these specific students when developing the new degree. It not only removed the BAME awarding gap, it removed awarding gaps from all identifiably separate student groups within the cohort (e.g. male:female, commuting students, care-leaving students, mature students).

Positive satisfaction and employment outcomes

As a consequence of this, National Student Survey ‘overall satisfaction’ scores on this programme have reached in excess of 90%, making it probably the highest-ranking such course in the country. Equally, employment outcomes for the students exiting this programme are better than sector averages: 78% of alumni gain graduate-level jobs after graduation and 98% of graduates gain a job of some kind.

Staff development

Staff development was also enhanced, with a number of initiatives designed for them to better understand the specific learning needs of an ethnically and culturally diverse student cohort. Some examples are unconscious-bias training, inclusive curriculum workshops and staff becoming Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Champions for the course and wider school, as part of a university-wide EDI Committee.

Help all students reach their potential

The interventions described here have demonstrated that even ‘neutral’, ‘objective’ science can be presented in a manner that makes it more accessible to diverse student groups. In the context of a stubbornly persistent BAME awarding gap and the wider societal changes being demanded as a consequence of the Black Lives Matter campaign, it is surely an ethical and moral imperative for us to reconfigure our teaching approaches to ensure that all our students reach their full potential.



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Published: 24 Nov 2020

About the author

Nick Freestone

Nick Freestone is an Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Physiology at Kingston University. He is Course Leader for the suite of undergraduate Pharmaceutical Science degrees at that institution. These degrees have recently been shortlisted for the Guardian University Awards in the category of Course Design, Retention and Student Outcomes. Nick is currently an Education Theme Lead for the Physiological Society and has previously been the recipient of the Royal Society of Biology's UK Higher Education Teacher of the Year award sponsored by Oxford University Press.

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