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The Pharmaceutical Journal
Vol 269 No 7221 p604
26 October 2002

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The demise of professionally registered academics ? a challenge for pharmacy

By Kevin Taylor and Geoffrey Harding

Kevin Taylor is reader at the School of Pharmacy, University of London, and Geoffrey Harding is senior lecturer at Barts and the London, Queen Mary?s School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of London

There has recently been an alarming decline in the number of pharmacists for whom teaching is their principal occupation, with the total declining by approximately one-third from 403 in 1981 to 277 in 2001. Over the same period undergraduate pharmacy students admitted to schools of pharmacy has risen from 781 in 1981 to 2,068 in 2002 representing a 164 per cent increase in entrants per year. To compound this situation, since 1997 students have been enrolled on to four-year rather than three-year pharmacy degree programmes, so that not only has the annual intake increased, but each school of pharmacy now accommodates four rather than three year groups. The net result of these aggregated statistics is that the ratio of students to full-time academic pharmacists has rapidly and enormously increased.

Many factors have contributed to the decline in registered pharmacy academics, including poor academic salaries and career structures, and insufficient numbers of pharmacists undertaking postgraduate research and progressing to a purely academic career. An additional factor is the changed nature of academia, which for direct financial reasons has, in recent years, led universities to tailor their activities in pursuit of a high grading, in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Universities, when recruiting staff, target individuals with a record of attracting research funding and who publish prolifically, particularly in “good” journals. Consequently, research specialists and research groups now dominate the university landscape.

Broadly based degree
A traditional strength of the pharmacy degree has been its broad scientific and clinical base, enabling schools of pharmacy to produce practitioners who are both scientists and health professionals. The coexistence of research and teaching within schools of pharmacy is highly desirable, such that new scientific, clinical and health services research is undertaken which, theoretically at least, could impact directly on undergraduates’ learning. However, if the research findings which might “feed” into practice-based teaching becomes too specialised, being generated by non-pharmacist specialists, their importance and relevance is lost to students studying for a vocational degree.

Fewer pharmacy-qualified teachers, responsible for ever greater numbers of students has significant implications for the development of the pharmacy profession, and of individual students as future health professionals. Specifically, this situation results in fewer opportunities for students to be inculcated with the social values, mores and practices associated with professional practice — in short professional socialisation.

The process of socialisation involves individuals developing awareness of particular social norms and values, and to acquire a distinct occupational identity. They become self-aware, knowledgeable and skilled in their ways of the culture into which they are being immersed. Future pharmacists cannot be simply taught their “identity” as a “pharmacist”. This can only be developed through interaction with other pharmacists who embody the culture of the profession. This process involves nascent professionals learning skills, aptitudes and a readiness to conform to the expectations, patterns of behaviour and cultural attributes of the profession they will ultimately enter. During their undergraduate experience, students should be enabled to recognise that being a pharmacist is much more than simply possessing specialist knowledge. It requires a skilful handling of this knowledge in practice such that this accomplishment becomes the “stock in trade” of the pharmacist. The specialist, drug-related knowledge — the foundation of their expertise — is only a skeleton providing a structure upon which to build an identity as a health professional.

This is less an issue for student nurses or medical students because their educational experience resonates with the notion of training for a profession, and during their training students they are seen to take on some of the “characteristics” of the fully fledged professional. Teaching by specialists within schools of pharmacy focuses pharmacy students on acquisition of disciplinary knowledge, rather than the management of that knowledge in a professional capacity. This is encouraged by, and at the same time encourages and reinforces, the binary divide between pharmaceutical science and practice.

Nowadays, full-time pharmacy practice academics, who like all other academics must generate a quantifiable research output, have more in common with those working in health services research, etc, than “scientific” researchers in their own institutions, and common ground between science and practice has diminished yet further from its existing low levels. The “professional” elements of the course, such as law and ethics, are increasingly taught by practitioner-teachers, who are by definition not in the school full-time and frequently find themselves marginalised from the wider academic community which is predominantly focused towards research as defined by the RAE.

These developments have encouraged devolution within the pharmacy curriculum, with pharmacy practice moving ever further away from the pharmaceutical science elements of the pharmacy degree, boldly contrasting with other professional degrees whose “knowledge” is contextualised within professional practice. The issue, as we see it, is less to do with the divide between practice and science and more to do with the context in which pharmaceutical science is learned. Teaching the application of science to practice provides students with more than the knowledge of the science itself. It inculcates students with a capacity to accomplish a professional judgement on the basis of that knowledge. Technical knowledge alone is inadequate.

Essential dimension
That said, we are in no way denigrating the contribution that both teacher-practitioners and non-pharmacist academics make to the education of future pharmacists — indeed, one of us is not a pharmacist. In particular, with their knowledge and daily experience of contemporary practice, community, hospital and industrial pharmacy, practitioner-teachers, together with practice placements, bring an essential dimension to the learning and socialisation of pharmacy students, which is distinctive and additional to that provided by full-time academic staff. Rather, we aim to highlight the special nature of a professional’s education, which requires that there are sufficient academic pharmacists to ensure students are exposed to and absorb the “culture of pharmacy” within the heart of their pharmacy degree programmes, rather being presented to it at the periphery.

Given current trends, it is probable that the academic pharmacist:student ratio will deteriorate still further. The imminent new schools of pharmacy may well exacerbate this situation by drawing on the existing pool of academic pharmacists to deliver their courses, while increasing overall student numbers. Moreover, as has been highlighted, academic pharmacists gain little tangible benefit from membership of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (The Pharmaceutical Journal is openly available online) and do not require professional registration to perform their duties. It would be ironic if the introduction of compulsory continuing professional development, highlighting the importance of lifelong learning and professional development, proved the last straw, precipitating a further and potentially catastrophic loss of professionally registered full-time academic pharmacists.

 

 

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