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Here to help: realistic expectations

Alan Wainwright, IBMS Executive Head of Education, asks the question: “What are the realistic expectations of a new biomedical science graduate?”

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In the UK there are 54 universities offering IBMS-accredited degrees with different modes of delivery (full-time, with and without placements or part-time) and structures (full-time academic programme, academic programme with integrated IBMS registration training portfolio, apprenticeship degree (work-based with “day-release”), placements in industry, placements in clinical laboratories).  

Without doubt, IBMS accreditation is respected by universities and recognised by students as adding value to their degree. It does not automatically follow that students fully appreciate what an accredited degree offers, or for that matter that they have chosen the degree specifically for a career as a registered biomedical scientist. Many do, but many more may seek a career in research or industry. Such is the popularity of these degrees and the choices students have.

Flexible and adaptable

The choices have developed from traditional routes required to deliver an educated and trained workforce for clinical pathology services, but also in response to professional standards of practice, regulatory requirements and the wider application of biomedical science in industry. They are informed by the needs of employers who desire the ability to employ students of their choice, including those from non-accredited degrees, and the resources they have to contribute to academic teaching or to offer placement opportunities to students. It requires a flexible and adaptable approach to the application of IBMS accreditation standards, without losing sight of the underpinning need to ensure graduates are fit for purpose.   

Whilst it is arguably a good thing to have choices, the downside is that it can lead to misunderstanding or misrepresentation of what IBMS accreditation achieves, which can be further complicated by whether the graduate has spent time in a clinical laboratory in their degree, whether they have graduated eligible to apply for HCPC registration (having met requirements for a minimal standard for safe, effective practice), and expectations of hard-pressed employers who want students to “hit the ground running”.

What to expect?

All IBMS-accredited degree programmes must deliver academic teaching in subject specific knowledge defined by section 6 of the Quality Assurance Agency benchmark statement for Biomedical Sciences (2015) that relates to the main pathology disciplines, including clinical genetics. This includes the theory and practice of laboratory investigations and understanding of scientific principles for quality assurance and basic laboratory techniques. Unless completing a placement in a clinical laboratory, graduates will not be familiar with how to operate large automated analysers, although they will have been taught some of the theory underpinning them. Graduates can be expected to have an understanding of the biology of disease and the effective diagnosis and treatment of patients, know how to formulate and test a hypothesis, use data for critical analysis and present their results. They should have acquired other skills, such as team working, independent learning, and reflective practice.

Student views

Meeting students is an integral part of the IBMS accreditation process. Their views are sought with regard to the assessment, support they receive from academic staff and the research opportunities they have. But also, because students need to have the information to make informed choices, the accreditation panel check to confirm that student have information on professional and regulatory bodies, know about IBMS student membership, understand the procedures for accessing placements and the importance of the IBMS registration training portfolio. Some students are more knowledgeable than others, and human nature being what it is, students can be selective in what they pay attention to. This does not mean they haven’t been told!


Employer engagement is another crucial aspect of delivering an IBMS-accredited degree. Links between the university and local laboratories are essential for creating opportunities for students to engage with employers who contribute to academic teaching or offer placement opportunities. Furthermore, there is a requirement for universities to actively engage with employers to input to the development of the programme.

This is the employers’ opportunity to guide the university in producing graduates they want to employ by ensuring the curriculum is appropriate to service requirements. No employer or student from an accredited biomedical science degree should be able to claim they don’t know the basics of each laboratory discipline. They may have forgotten, but they have been taught it.

Training portfolio

One of the biggest changes that occurred with biomedical science degrees was the introduction of the IBMS registration training portfolio and the opportunity to complete it as part of a degree so that students could graduate with their degree and a certificate of competence (hence coining of the term “coterminous degree”) which rendered graduates eligible to apply for HCPC registration as a biomedical scientist. The requirement for registration is to meet a threshold level of competence, something that continues to split opinions in terms of meeting a level of standards that apply to all regulated professions and employers seeing a newly registered biomedical scientist as someone fully conversant with all aspects of their discipline.  

Perhaps it is time for a reality check. Newly registered biomedical scientists work as part of the team, they learn quickly and they have the background on which to gain more in depth experience and build specialist knowledge. They know the limit of their capabilities and are safe to practice. In this respect, they are no different from anyone else that starts work for the first time, whether their first job or in a new environment.  

Reflecting requirements

All this and more is brought together for a degree award that reflects the requirement for the student to achieve an acceptable performance in respect of all the major course components, but with particular regard to biomedical science and laboratory investigations.

A university degree, with or without a placement, can only at best offer a limited experience, and experienced practitioners should not be used to judge the competence of graduates, but rather to set a benchmark to which graduates can reasonably be expected to aspire in a relative short timeframe. Placements vary in length, resources, the ability and commitment of trainers/students, but they provide a wonderful opportunity for students to achieve a common standard through the registration portfolio and HCPC standards of proficiency.

Graduates may not be the finished article, they are after all at the start of their career, but the thorough grounding in biomedical science theory and practice that they receive equips them for safeguarding flexibility and adaptability of roles, which are an integral part of multi-professional team working and the delivery of patient-centred services.  

Accredited biomedical science degrees may have their critics but they continue to grow in popularity and reputation in the UK and in many countries abroad further enhancing the reputation of the IBMS as a standard-setting organisation. This does not mean we rest on our laurels. We look to improve even more, but we also look for realistic expectations.   


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