On a flight home from holiday in 2010, a University senior leader had a chance conversation with a local eye care specialist, who questioned why – when the South West urgently needed eye care specialists – Plymouth didn’t offer an optometry degree.
Fast forward to 2016, and two optometry cohorts have graduated, student numbers have more than doubled, and nearly £1 million has been secured in research funding. It’s safe to say that optometry has been an eye-opening success.
It took less than nine months from that original meeting for the optometry course to be professionally approved, with the first students welcomed in 2011. And as the University’s School of Health Professions celebrates the course’s fifth anniversary, Dr Phillip Buckhurst, Associate Professor in Optometry, reflects on how far it has come since the very beginning.
“Optometry is only offered at 11 universities in the UK,” he said. “Plymouth was the ninth to introduce it. And there had long been a need nationally for an eye health training centre in the South West, and as soon as the idea was adopted, everything moved very quickly.”
The course, like many of those in other health professions, is a balance of research-informed teaching and clinical practice. From their first year, students observe and assist local opticians, and in 2013, the University opened its Centre for Eye Care Excellence (CEE), based near the main campus on Gibbon Street. The practice offers students the chance to carry out supervised training on members of the public and such is the success of the initiative – and the growth in student numbers – that CEE has expanded onto the campus itself, with a second practice opened in November 2016 in the Wellbeing Centre.
Both facilities, which follow a model similar to the Dental Education Facilities, are home to advanced instrumentation and used by undergraduate and postgraduate students, with qualified optometrists on hand to supervise students and deal with more complex patients.
Phil said: “We welcomed 32 students in the first year, with a view to reaching 72, but wanted to take our time in order to roll out the course comfortably, ensuring quality. This year we had our full intake of students, with 13 full-time staff, up from the original four of us five years ago.”