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Standing out from the crowd in the areas of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes of study in forensic disciplines is an ongoing challenge for Universities and Institutions across the UK. With tuition fees at an all-time high, prospective students are more discerning than ever before. The changing forensic marketplace, with the closure of the Forensic Science Service and cuts to public services, has done little to influence student choices in terms of study in these areas. A UCAS search for undergraduate programmes with ‘forensic’ in the title delivers 87 providers in the UK and many of these have multiple forensic related courses within the institution. With such an array of courses on offer, what can prospective students do to ensure their course of study gives them the best advantage in obtaining a job in a niche and highly competitive field?
The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences (CSoFS) offers an accreditation scheme to validate university courses. Accreditation is largely based on the forensic aspects of the courses; prospective students have the reassurance that content is relevant to their chosen field and at the required standard if they choose one of the 57 undergraduate, or 16 postgraduate programmes currently accredited by the CSoFS at 29 institutions.
The facilities available for study can also be an important consideration. Scene houses, vehicle bays and access to field sites for scene examination enable students to encounter a wide variety of scenes and evidence types to build their experience and confidence in working in different environments, each with their own challenges. There are now some excellent facilities available to students choosing forensic disciplines but it has become more difficult to separate institutions based on these features as most of the larger competitors in the market are similar in their provision.
Other important factors for both teaching and research include specialist laboratory facilities and equipment. Access to the type of equipment used by forensic practitioners and scientific support services will ensure that students are well prepared for the workplace with a good working knowledge of real world facilities and methodologies.
Institutions are always seeking to replicate practice in the facilities and equipment available to students. Fully equipped DNA laboratories, glass and fibre analysis equipment, comparison macroscopes and microscopes for marks and trace evidence comparison, Visual Spectral Comparators for document examination, microspectroscopy, Gas and Liquid Chromatography with Mass Spectrometry and field equipment such as 3D Laser scanners, Ground Penetrating Radar and GPS mapping equipment are among the many facilities students may be using for taught classes and research projects in forensic disciplines.
The vast majority of institutions employ practitioner and ex-practitioner staff, working alongside academics with research expertise. While academics are able to use research and innovation to inform teaching, practioners, past and present, play a vital role in maintaining the currency of course content through consultancy in addition to maintaining links with industry, ensuring teaching is representative of existing practice. Informative case studies and examples of workplace experiences boost student confidence in courses and strengthen engagement with their studies. Networking can result in many opportunities to enhance the learning experience through guest lectures and collaborative activities.
Although all of these aspects are important in the selection process of prospective students, employability is now a key factor; students want to know they will have good prospects on completion of their degree. In an increasingly competitive jobs market, it is essential to equip graduates with the skills and attributes necessary for the workplace and universities are actively incorporating these into their curricula. Dedicated skills modules provide support to ensure high levels of numeracy and literacy and core skills for forensic practitioners, whilst also address written and verbal communication, respect and compassion, presentation skills and leadership. Team building and problem solving activities have become part of many academic courses in recognition of the attributes employers are seeking in their workforce, to supplement academic qualifications.
Having academic knowledge, practical skills and the ability to demonstrate employability, students then require a platform from which to showcase their potential to employers and universities facilitate this in a number of ways.
Supporting active membership of professional bodies such as the CSoFS provides access to practitioners and employers through conferences and workshops where vital networking opportunities and a wider understanding of the forensic community can be gained. It also provides valuable opportunities to the presentat research outputs via presentations and posters.
Internal careers events are commonplace in universities and provide an interface for employers and potential recruits, although, in many cases the range of disciplines can be diverse and more targeted events for forensic and policing communities should be encouraged.
In 2013 World Skills UK added Forensic Science to its vast range of competition categories and the number of institutions taking part is increasing each year. With presentations of the final awards by the Forensic Regulator and the Chief Executive Officer of the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences, respectively, in 2013 and 2014 and invitations to promote the event around the UK, medal winners’ profiles are raised and their successes recognised by the industry. Competitors are able to demonstrate their skills and knowledge through posters, presentations, practical scene examinations, laboratory analysis and mock court exercises judged by practitioners from various disciplines within forensic investigation services. The National finals are open to the public and media coverage is extensive.
Work experience in forensic disciplines is notoriously difficult to acquire, although, a handful of internships are available directly through employers each year and there are a number of sandwich courses offering a year’s work placement; it is advisable, however, to check the small print as the student is expected to find and secure the placement in some cases (with support and encouragement from university careers services). Where placements do exist, host supervisors are able to preview potential future applicants and how they conduct themselves in the workplace.
Additional support to stretched resources can free-up valuable time for operational staff and students gain invaluable experience and insight into the workings of forensic and scientific support services. As more police forces and forensic service providers recognise the benefits of collaboration with academic institutions it is hoped that more work placements will become available to more students via more institutions in coming years.
Collaborative research is a more accessible alternative for exposing students to practice in forensic disciplines and can be achieved on a number of levels. The involvement of the forensic service provider or scientific support service is flexible and can be tailored to the resources and time they are able to commit. Simply canvassing practitioners for suggestions for dissertations or research projects is an effective way to ensure relevance to practice and scientific support and forensic services can access outputs. At the other end of the scale researchers are supported by practitioners in devising project outlines, providing access to laboratories to ensure that appropriate methodology is applied to replicate practice and providing guidance through regular communication. In these cases outputs are generally far more informative and can lead to further projects and/or genuine contribution to innovation in forensic investigation. There are many opportunities for universities to become involved in the collection of data to support forensic and investigative practice through targeted surveys for trace materials such as glass and fibres and potential to publish results for the benefit of the wider forensic community.
The School of Forensic and Investigative Sciences at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) is one of the longest standing and largest Higher Education providers in the UK with a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in forensic disciplines. There are over 80 academic staff, including practitioners and ex-practitioners in forensic science, crime scene investigation and policing, and around 100 postgraduate students and researchers. Facilities include scene houses, with a public house, post office and arson scene in addition to the domestic rooms, a dedicated Blood Pattern Analysis suite, a garage for vehicles, a stand-alone Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) and criminalistics laboratories housing equipment similar or identical to that found in working forensic facilities. The most recent acquisitions are the Foster and Freeman Trace Analysis system, Crime Lite Imager (semi-automated latent fingerprint capture and enhancement system) and Keyence 3D Digital Microscope.
The Taphonomic Research in Anthropology - Centre for Experimental Studies (TRACES) facility was the first in the UK dedicated to the experimental study of all aspects of decomposition, trauma, forensic entomology and forensic DNA using animal models. In addition to student research and teaching the site is used for casework related experiments by a forensic service provider and in the training of cadaver dogs.
£360,000 has been invested in the new Hydra/Minerva training simulator suite, the most sophisticated university installation in the country and one of very few in universities in the UK. This immersive learning environment allows students to take part in real-time simulated incidents and scenarios to develop critical incident management skills and mirrors the specification and complexity of the most advanced systems used by police forces and emergency services across the UK and abroad.
In the recently completed J B Firth Building at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), millions of pounds were spent on developing its laboratories and equipment, including dedicated fire laboratories, state-of-the-art chemistry laboratories and an analytical suite with wide-ranging facilities used in taught classes and research.
A specifically targeted Forensic Science and Policing Careers Fair takes place in February, which is growing in stature each year with increasing numbers of employers and recruitment agencies exhibiting and presentations from alumni and seasoned practitioners providing insight into the varied career paths available to graduates.
Representatives from Lancashire Constabulary and their Scientific Support Services, Cellmark Forensic Services, the Army and NHS Laboratories were among the many exhibitors at this year’s event. Employability workshops and CV writing competitions run alongside the event and have proved very popular.
All undergraduate forensic degree programmes include skills modules in the first year of study and further employability lectures and tutorials are embedded in 2nd year modules for Forensic and Policing courses. Students are encouraged to maintain Employability Development Profiles to maximise their academic and personal experiences and achievements and opportunities to attend Leadership Courses, in the UK and abroad, add teambuilding and problem solving to their tool kit for securing a job on graduation.
UCLan have been very fortunate to secure summer work placements in the Forensic Services Branch of a nearby metropolitan police force and one week attachments to the Crime Scene Investigation Unit of another. Places are limited, however, this provides students with the chance to participate in a recruitment process that closely resembles the real world and, even if unsuccessful, they gain valuable experience and feedback to support future applications. Feedback from both the host forces and students in these ventures has been very positive, particularly from the summer placements. So far two former placement students have secured full-time employment with the host force and other participants have secured roles in policing and scientific support elsewhere. Bi-products of these work placements and the communication lines they have opened between the police forces in question and the university have included assistance with casework experiments and access to university staff and equipment to establish whether items of evidence meet the threshold for submission to Forensic Service Providers.
Maintaining good links with practitioners has led to a number of research projects at UCLan for both undergraduate and postgraduate students. Many of these are a response to issues arising in casework or limitations presented by a lack of background data to support evaluation of evidence in terms of quantities of trace materials likely to be found in general or specific populations. Students engaged on projects have the opportunity to develop research strategies with support from practitioners and gain access to working laboratories and a greater understanding of the processes employed in evidence analysis in the real world.