From exam results to medical school and why university funding must be increased

An extremely hot topic over the past couple of weeks has been exam results. Across the UK, school pupils have been outraged, devastated and generally feeling let down, by the grading algorithm that was adopted in the absence of exams. Since then of course, governments have made a U-turn and announced that original teacher estimated grades will stand for all those who had their results downgraded.

And whilst this is welcome, it does of course raise questions around university places – particularly medical school places. There is now talk of the current cap on medical school places being lifted in light of the issues around exam gradings.

Overall I welcome increasing places, but this needs to be carefully considered in the long-term with corresponding and sufficient increases in funding for universities to adequately support students in a year group of a larger than normal size, that won’t have the one-to-one teaching and tutor support that is often available. On top of this, additional funding will also be needed to help each medical school’s pastoral team.

It’s true that we desperately need more doctors in Scotland – I don’t think anyone can deny that – but while it’s accurate to say we need them in the future, we also need them right now, and if we don’t have enough senior doctors now to train the doctors of tomorrow, we face real problems. For me, the main issue will come at clinical teaching time in 3rd, 4th and 5th years and the Scottish Government needs to realise that NHS clinicians are involved heavily in this, and the learning experience will not be the same if there are fewer senior clinicians with increased numbers of students. It may well mean that ward rounds become virtual with group calls – if that’s the case, it needs to be made clear with students as soon as possible, because this will adversely affect the learning experience.

It’s also very important to bear in mind that although a larger intake this year will eventually lead to more doctors in the NHS – and hopefully more in Scotland if we see an increased number of Scottish domiciled students – which is of course a good thing, the Scottish Government also needs to make guarantees that the Foundation Year programme will be expanded to account for this as well. We cannot let all these students come in with dreams of being doctors, only to find themselves unable to get a post in Scotland after five years of hard work at university, or forced to move to another part of the UK for a job. It’s not fair on them, our patients, or our NHS.

These are no doubt complex issues, but they could result in something of a silver lining if more doctors are the result in the long-term in Scotland. Rest assured the BMA will be monitoring this as and when the position becomes clearer. We’ll keep you updated and, if you are a medical student, please consider joining the BMA and I guarantee we’ll do all we can to support you.

Matthew Murtagh is co-chair of the BMA’s Scottish Medical Students Committee

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