This was the title of the Biosciences Federation’s second Education Colloquium which took place in October 2005, inviting professionals from the education, careers and employment sectors to discuss employability issues and to answer this topical question. Most delegates were academics and careers advisers from Higher Education but there were also school teachers and educational and policy professionals. Disappointingly, the industry sector was represented by only two delegates - one from English Nature, the other from Astrazeneca - but the presence of recruiting firms and organisations such as the Bioindustry Association and BioKnex allowed us to share a wide variety of viewpoints for the discussion sessions.

What exactly is ‘employability’, what do employers want, and how should employability skills be provided? During her introduction, Sue Assinder, the colloquium Chair, noted the various descriptors that have entered the everyday language of the teaching world: core skills; toolkit; graduate qualities; key skills, tertiary literacies, springboard competencies. She left the audience with the questions ‘How are these skills being provided?’ and ‘Is it working?’


The morning was split into three sections, each containing two talks:


     Kath Skillern (Edexcel): 360Science. The student-centred curriculum
     Anna Cleaves ( Anglia Ruskin University): What influences science choice at secondary level?

Higher Education:

     Jane Taylor ( Lancaster University) The academic’s perspective
     Ian Hughes (HE Academy Centre for Bioscience) How do our courses measure up?


     Kay Wardle (RSA Consulting) Jobs for Bioscientists
     Andrew Whitmore (Careers Centre, University of Manchester) Why a degree is not enough


The powerpoint slides for all of these talks can be viewed at www.bsf.ac.uk/edu and the main points are reported here:


Kath Skillern explained Edexcel’s new GSCE Science curriculum, which was developed to make science accessible to all students. It enables students to experience the science that affects them in their everyday lives in a relevant and interesting manner. The specifications are based on the QCA criteria. The students have to evaluate evidence, consider the implications of science on society and demonstrate knowledge of how science is practiced. The framework is flexible, and students are able to choose from GCSE Science, GCSE Additional Science, and separate GCSEs in Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Those that choose to study GCSE Science alone will not be able to study science at A-level. In addition, 360Science also includes the BTEC First Certificate and Diploma, which allows students to study for a vocational qualification.

In terms of employability, concerns were raised by members of the audience that maths is still not embedded into the science curriculum and field work is not mandatory, as it is for Geography. The multiple-choice examination system remains, which some members of the audience believed would compound the increasing problems of poor literacy and essay-writing skills.

Anna Cleaves reported on some extensive research which she carried out on ‘The formation of science choices in secondary school’ (International Journal of Science Education27, 471– 486). Her research was driven by the fall in uptake of science in schools and the increasing tendency for Biology to be taken with a range of other subject combinations. Students were surveyed longitudinally at the beginning and end of year 9, the end of year 10 and directly after they had made their choices in the spring of year 11.

One alarming fact that emerged from the survey was that, even among high-achieving students with A grades for GCSE science, there was an overall image that science is too hard and that they are not clever enough to study it to A-level.

Anna finished her talk with a number of suggested ways forward: Keep improving science teaching; provide bursaries for ‘real science teachers’; use careers advisers who know about science careers; and encourage exploration about science careers.

Higher Education

What is a Bioscientist?’ was the question that opened Jane Taylor’s talk. She suggested that there are three types of bioscience student: those who want to become practising scientists; those wishing to apply their knowledge to a bioscience-related industry and those who enjoy biology but do not want to use the knowledge directly in their future employment.

This creates a dilemma for the average academic, who is left wondering how to balance specific knowledge and generic transferable skills in course material to meet everyone’s needs. In addition, many students are now coming to university with insufficient knowledge of maths and chemistry, an assessment-driven motivation and low level literacy skills. All of these are problems that have to be redressed by academics during the degree course.

The other major issue for academics is student awareness of what transferable skills are and why they need them. In an assessment-driven culture, many students will not be motivated to undertake these parts of the course unless they are embedded. Even if they are, students invariably are unable to identify which transferable skills they have in their possession! In addition, Jane pointed out other shortcomings of new students who arrive at the university with their heads stuffed full of information but with little understanding or the ability to express their own ideas and thoughts either orally or in writing.

Jane concluded by saying that a long-term and concerted effort is needed to overcome some of these dilemmas, including reducing the amount of assessment and testing in schools, fostering critical thinking and better communication between schools and universities.

Ian Hughes reported on a survey which he conducted recently and which is published in the Centre for Bioscience’s online journal, BEE-J. The conclusions of his findings from a longitudinal study of students who had graduated one and two years previously showed that graduates felt they were well prepared for their course with respect to theory and knowledge, presentations and communications skills, basic IT needs, confidence, organisation, time/self-management. However, they felt they were ill-prepared for practical aspects of the job, career management, specialist knowledge, advanced IT and commercial awareness.

Quotes such as ‘You come out of Uni expecting to walk into a job but in actual fact all graduates have the same experience and so the realisation that you need more at an early stage would be good’ will probably make most course providers and careers advisers hold their hands up in exasperation, as they strive to introduce students to the Careers Service as they arrive at University. Similarly, another quote “The hardest part was customer contact, day after day, question after question” illustrates the fact that students come out of university unable to make the connection between part-time temporary and full-time employment.

Ian’s final message was “There are easy ways in which we can improve employability aspects of our courses. Use the existing tools and don’t re-invent the wheel.”


Kay Wardle, managing director of a science recruitment company, was able to give the employer’s perspective. She set out the wide variety of jobs available within the bioscience industry including research, clinical trials, toxicology, regulatory affairs, sales and marketing. The three main requirements which employers look for are a good degree in a relevant subject, practical work experience and transferable skills (communication, teamwork, initiative/problem solving, flexibility/adaptability, self-awareness, commitment and commercial awareness). She told the audience that a good degree is not enough.

Our concluding talk of the morning from Andrew Whitmore began with some professional definitions of the word ‘employability’, the most poignant of which was a quote from Dr Peter Hawkins: “To be employed is to be at risk, to be employable is to be stable’. Competition for graduate jobs is very tough - a fact illustrated by labour market information which says that from the pool of graduates entering employment in 2005, only 11% will enter formal ‘graduate training programmes’.

Andrew divided the skills and qualities most in demand into 5 main categories: self-reliance skills, people skills, general skills, specialist skills and commercial awareness. Statistics show that over 70% of Bioscience graduates do not enter occupations directly or indirectly related to their degree, emphasising the need for general employability skills in the degree curriculum.


Following the formal talks, delegates came together for the Discussion session, which was very efficiently managed by Sue Assinder. Sitting at round tables, the delegates were given three of the following questions to discuss and then feedback informally:


     1. How can we improve communication between stakeholders?

     2. Are transferable skills really transferable?

     3. How can students take responsibility for their own employability skills?

     4. What could employers do?

     5. Is there a ‘core’ knowledge base for a bioscience graduate? If so, what is it?

     6. How do you give students experience of the workplace?

     7. How can we break the mould of assessment-driven learning?


The results of the discussion and feedback are not reported here but a formal document will be published early in 2006 making recommendations deriving from this colloquium. The recommendations will complement the findings and recommendations of the Biosciences Federation’s ‘Enthusing the next generation’ group which was published in November 2005. We welcome input and comments from our members about their views and experiences on student employability.


Sarah Blackford

Dariel Burdass

Sue Assinder

Education Committee, Biosciences Federation