The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) has announced plans to develop a BSc degree in optometry, backed by funding from the Federation of (Ophthalmic and Dispensing) Opticians (FODO) Educational Trust.
Described by UHI as a move to “address the growing demand for eye care services in the region,” the university has confirmed that it has submitted an initial proposal to the General Optical Council (GOC) and is “working with stakeholders to develop the new course.”
UHI added that the programme will “incorporate new approaches to regional training to support the delivery of optometry services in remote and rural communities.”
UHI uses a regional university structure, made up of a partnership of 13 independent colleges and research institutions based in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Previously known as UHI Millennium Institute, UHI gained full university status in 2011. Today the university has over 40,000 further and higher education students, and has been recognised as a ‘best performing young university’ by The Times Higher Education.
Deputy principal of the university, Professor Crichton Lang, said: “We are delighted to be working in innovative ways with industry partners to develop and deliver this BSc degree in the region. This initiative will boost career opportunities, strengthen the supply of qualified optometrists to the industry and contribute to the overall delivery of high-quality health and social care to our communities. These benefits all align fully with our vision for the growing impact of the university’s School of Health, Social Care and Life Sciences.”
Commenting on the move, chair of Optometry Scotland, Samantha Watson, said: “The Scottish Government has correctly recognised the pivotal role of eye health and vision to the health, wellbeing and prosperity of our nation. Scotland has very specific eye health requirements with geographical challenges that must be met with a long term local workforce strategy. Optometry Scotland recognises the difficulties recruiting and retaining optometrists in the remote and rural areas of Scotland and supports this initiative.”
Chair of FODO Scotland, Hal Rollason, added: “The development of this course is a direct response to the need to upskill and expand the optometric professional workforce so that we can play our full part in meeting the growing and changing eye health needs of the population. FODO is very proud to support that work.”
The FODO Education Trust, which is providing expertise and funding to help develop the degree, is a charity set up to support education in the optical sector.
In a statement from NHS Education for Scotland (NES), Dr Kathy Morrison and Dr Lesley Rousselet, said: “NES is pleased to support this opportunity for local, targeted optometry education in Northern Scotland, which should provide the area with confident practitioners. Further, we look forward to its support to provide high quality continuing professional development opportunities to optometrists in Northern Scotland.”
A GOC spokesperson told OT: “We can confirm we’re in discussion with UHI. The GOC must consider all new applications for accreditation based on whether they meet its standards. The GOC is not able to consider factors such as demand for optometrists or market conditions when considering accreditation applications.”
Explaining the process for applying to set up a course, the GOC said: “When a new course leading to GOC registration wishes to open, they must make a formal application to the GOC. The GOC will then consider the application and if it meets the requirements the GOC initially grants only provisional approval to the new course. The GOC will grant full approval when the course has been running for a period of time and the GOC is satisfied that the course meets its standards for students to achieve full registration.
The GOC added: “Provisional approval is granted by the GOC council, at the recommendation of its education committee. Provisional approval enables the new programme to be established (in accordance with the submission approved) and advertised to recruit the first cohort of students.”
Reflecting on the development, the AOP’s head of education, Dr Ian Beasley, said: “The Optical Workforce Survey identified a shortage of in the region of 900 optometrists, and those practices based in more remote areas are especially affected by this as an issue. We also know from our own research into the wellbeing of UK optometrists that many don’t feel the need, or are not prepared, to relocate for work so for the employers operating in shortage areas, more graduates will be a very welcomed change. However, we do recognise that some practitioners are concerned that there is an oversupply of graduates in some areas and the impact this could have on salaries.”
OT has contacted UHI to clarify the planned timescale for the rollout of the course, along with the intended number of students to be taken on the course.