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BMA report: Medical schools 'failing to recruit low-income students'

By Gareth Iacobucci

The British Medical Association says it has 'serious concerns' over new figures that show the millions spent on broadening the medical profession to those from low income families has had little impact.

A BMA report published today found only one in seven successful applicants to UK medical schools are from the lowest economic groups, despite them making up just under half of the UK population.

And there has been an increase of just 1.7% in students coming from low income backgrounds in the past five years, despite £392 million being poured into widening access schemes across the higher education system since 2001.

The findings, which the BMA have described as a ‘serious concern', follow a Pulse investigation in August, which highlighted the growing divide in the chances of state school applicants being accepted onto medical courses compared with privately educated students.

Our investigation, based on figures from the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), revealed that in 2004, 57% of privately educated applicants were accepted onto courses – only a little higher than the 49% of state school applicants.

But by 2008, the proportion of privately educated applicants accepted onto courses had leaped to 67%, while the proportion of state school applicants had fallen to 41%.

The latest BMA report adds even more evidence of a drastic gap in acceptance rates.

58% of applicants from the top socio-economic group obtained a place at medical school, but only 39% of applicants from the lowest group were successful – a shortfall of 19%.

The BMA report, Equality and diversity in UK medical schools, published today, also shows that just over half of all accepted applicants to UK medical schools in 2008 were women.

Women are over-represented in certain specialities such as palliative care, where around 80% of doctors are women, but woefully under-represented in others including surgery and academia, where women make up only one in twelve consultant general surgeons in England and around one in ten medical school professors.

Professor Bhupinder Sandhu, chair of the BMA's equal opportunity committee, said medical schools are still failing to recruit enough students from low income backgrounds.

‘A combination of complex problems lies at the heart of this failure. There are clear underlying issues within education at school level, not just in the poor academic performance amongst low income students, but also in low aspirations, with many seemingly feeling a career in medicine is simply unattainable.

Professor Sandhu also warned that students from low income backgrounds were being dissuaded from entering medicine by the burgeoning costs of a five year medical degree, which, according to latest BMA estimates, will soon leave students with an average debt of around £37,000.

‘This high cost presents a significant challenge to middle and low income families with children at medical school, especially at a time of recession,' she said.

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA urged the Government to ‘look at the cost of the medical degree.

‘The chancellor's recent announcement of a scheme aimed at helping low income students gain exposure of medicine may help to address the fact that many do not feel a medical career is a possible career option.

‘But this will not in itself solve this problem. The government must look at the cost of the medical degree and how we address the failings in our school system.'

Dr Vivienne Nathanson urged the Government to ‘look at the cost' of a medical degree.

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