First forensic science degree to help combat crime

The University of the Free State is making history by offering a BSc degree in forensic science – the first of its kind in crime-plagued South Africa. According to the department of genetics, the degree will target, among others, people working on crime scenes and criminal cases in forensic laboratories and the South African Police Services, or SAPS.

A minimum of 80 students will be selected for admission to the course next year.

Professor Johan Spies, chair of the department of genetics in the faculty of natural and agricultural sciences, said the university had already received more than 60 applications. “That is without any advertising,” he told University World News. “The interest in the course has been enormous.”

The new degree comes not a minute too soon: according to the SAPS, about 1,300 serial killers are active in the country. A new DNA Bill is expected to be approved by parliament before the end of the year, under which all schedule one criminals and suspected criminals will be compelled to provide DNA samples to be stored in a database.

At the first conference of the SAPS National Forensic Service earlier this year, it was reported that millions of Rands, the local currency, had been spent establishing an integrated, modern, well-managed criminal justice system.

New laboratories were already in operation, it was reported, with more planned, including one in each of South Africa’s nine provinces. Over the past two years, between 700 and 800 new appointments had been advertised in the forensics field by the SAPS.

The University of the Free State, which has been offering an honours programme in forensic genetics since 2010, said entrance requirements for the undergraduate degree would include an admission point score – based on results in the national school-leaving examinations – of at least 34, as well as a combined minimum point of 17 for maths, life sciences and physical science. Applications for the new degree close on 30 September 2013.

On completion of the undergraduate programme, postgraduate-level students can continue with forensic science, forensic chemistry, forensic genetics or forensic entomology.

Spies said there was no doubt that television programmes like "CSI" had stimulated interest in the subject. “And not only in forensics, but others too. When those TV series are being aired, the genetics department always receives a spate of enquiries.”

Over-subscription to the new degree was a distinct possibility, and “in the very long term, we would like to expand”. However, at the moment the university is limited by laboratory and facility space.

“It is very difficult to obtain money for this kind of equipment,” he told University World News.

The new degree

Being the first higher education institution in South Africa to offer the degree was a coup, and Spies said that other universities had shied away from offering something similar mainly because the degree was so complex.

“If you want to do all aspects of it properly, you need to include medical, physics, genetics, IT, even accounting…there are many facets to the subject. We started with the postgrad course, and it went quite well, so began looking at it on an undergraduate level.

“I visited a number of different universities in the United Kingdom to see how they did it, and then used that as a model on which to base our own course.”

New staff have already been appointed, including a lecturer who studied at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, and another who is completing a doctorate in chemistry.

At the moment, the department of genetics has nine lecturers, but Spies said it would also be involving staff from other departments to help with specific areas of certain modules.

But will graduates join the police?

Does Spies foresee an explosion of private forensic laboratories being set up after the new intake has graduated, or are graduates likely to join the currently very under-staffed SAPS departments?

Many would join the police, which was critically short of skilled and qualified experts in the field, Spies said. But unsurprisingly, “not all of them are keen to sign up with the SAPS”.

The police in South Africa do not have a good reputation for efficiency or effectiveness. Indeed, that is not the only problem – it was recently revealed in an audit that nearly 1,500 serving officers in a force of 160,000 had criminal records for serious offences including murder, rape and assault. Two-thirds had been convicted after joining the SAPS.

Local media reported this weekend that the Human Sciences Research Council had found that “a quarter of adults have encountered police corruption and two-thirds believe it is widespread. Barely 40% trust the police, while more than a third are actually fearful of SAPS.”

Graduates with DNA forensics would have little option but to join the police. “Unfortunately, there is no other way to do it. But as far as cyber forensics is concerned, there are lots of private firms where they can do that type of work.”

University World News asked Spies where existing forensic scientists within the SAPS had trained. “In the past, the police would employ students with a BSc, and give them in-house training, but it could take a year or two before they could actually start working.

“In the future, they will be able to hire someone who is exceptionally well trained already.”

He said graduates would have a broader base of knowledge, and whereas previously in-house trainees would specialise in a specific field only, “ours will be exposed to all of the different areas of forensics”.

Interest in the field, added Spies, had increased along with the escalation in the country’s crime rate. “People are becoming more aware of forensics as a broad field, and we are delighted to be able to offer this new degree.”