Forensic courses cut open for analysis

May 2, 2003

The growth in forensic degree courses has been so phenomenal that forensic scientists are piloting accreditation schemes.

The number of courses with the word forensic in the title on the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service website grows daily. At the last count it was 313, with straightforward forensic chemistry mingling with forensic investigation with music and forensic investigation with marketing.

Forensic science - the application of science in a legal context - is stretching into forensic computing and forensic finance.

The issue of standards in the field is an increasingly vexed one. Brian Caddy, chair of the academic and education committee of the Forensic Science Society, said that justice depended on high standards. The former professor of forensics at Strathclyde University represented the Birmingham Six in their second appeal and helped supply the evidence that the nitrocellulose on their hands could have come from playing cards - not explosives as the prosecution had claimed.

"The industry representatives on the society have been concerned for a number of years at the number and quality of forensic courses," he said.

"As universities have found it increasingly difficult to attract students onto chemistry or physics degrees they have found that courses with forensics in the title tend to be oversubscribed. Television series such as Silent Witness have made forensics very popular."

Allan Jamieson, chair of the professional awards committee of the society and chair of the academic and education forum, said: "At the moment our advice to potential students is to do a straight science degree and then an MSc in forensics. Strathclyde and King's College London have traditionally run these masters courses and for years this has been the established route into the profession."

But he said that the society had recognised the sea change and was beginning to take a more pragmatic approach. "We want to give more informed advice on different courses - hence the accreditation scheme," he said.

Three universities have volunteered to take part in the pilot. Standards have been defined in three fields: crime-scene investigation; laboratory work; and evaluation interpretation and presentation of evidence in court.

To be accredited, universities must meet these standards in two out of the three fields, and one of those fields must be the evaluation of evidence.

Lucy Jones, course director of a new BSc in forensic science and investigative analysis at Kingston University, said: "Accreditation of the forensic components of degrees is in principle a good idea and would be welcomed here if it were a cooperative agreement to share good practice and to establish a subject standard while not being too prescriptive."

Last year, Universities UK hosted a meeting involving the society, universities and those involved in defining skills in the area to talk through the quality issues.

Professor Caddy said: "Employers are particularly concerned as this is a small field, employing 5,000 to 6,000 people at most. However, many universities at the meeting insisted that they are using forensic science as a vehicle to teach good science. We don't have a problem with that as long as the student knows this."

Dr Jones said: "At Kingston we emphasise that students are gaining an analytical science degree that will stand them in good stead for a wide variety of careers, not solely in the forensic science field."

Nick Lomas works for the Forensic Toxicology Service at St George's Hospital Medical School, in London and is a member of the forum. "Many more students take zoology than become zoologists and this is not seen as a cause for concern. I see a forensic science course as strong science with forensics as an extra element," he said.

But Professor Caddy was concerned about who was teaching the courses.

"Where does the expertise lie in the universities to teach these subjects? Many universities boast links with local police laboratories, but staff in these organisations are over-stretched. A good forensic scientist will also earn a lot more in the field than they will in a university," he said.

Dr Jamieson added: "We have found that many of the links that universities claim with local police or labs are tenuous at best."

But he saw a plus side to the growth of forensic courses. "Operational laboratories are overworked and research gets squeezed," he said. "Academic interest will hopefully improve the research base for forensic science."

From music piracy to religion
Canterbury Christ Church University College plans to run 67 degree courses with the word forensic in the title. The Ucas website lists the college as offering forensic investigation with media and cultural studies, with religion or with music.

Robin Bryant, director of the Centre for Studies in Policing at the college, said: "We thought long and hard what to call this programme.

We are not offering a forensic science course and we are clear to students that if they want to be forensic scientists, then a degree in a science such as chemistry followed by a masters is the advised route."

The college's website says: "The programme is, however, an excellent preparation for occupations where an understanding of the forensic process would be valuable."

Dr Bryant said: "We teach students about the criminal justice system, about policing and the scientific nature of evidence, and we are partnered in this by the Kent Police College."

He acknowledged that some of the combinations on offer might look "weird and wonderful". "But take music," he said. "We have a course lecturer who has been one of the prime investigators of music piracy. We are not pretending that students could immediately become music piracy investigators but we are giving them an academic background in the subject."

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