Doctors’ leaders on Tuesday warned the government that increasing tuition fees could result in medical students facing a debt bill of potentially £100,000 – a financial burden that could discourage many applicants from low and middle income families.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said: ‘Proposals to allow universities to charge fees up to £12,000 are contained in Lord Browne’s report, Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education: An Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance.
‘It also recommends that students should pay higher rates of interest on their student loans and an increase in the income level at which these loans are repaid, from £15,000 to £21,000.
‘The BMA estimates that any further increases in tuition fees could result in a prohibitive level of debt for the next generation of medical students:
• ‘Graduates are currently leaving medical school with an estimated £37,000 worth of debt under the present £3,290 annual fee.
‘They also have to rely on around £16,000 worth of support from their families over the course of their degree.
• ‘Raising fees would increase debt significantly. If fees are levied at around £10,000 for example, this could leave students studying in the UK living with debt of around £70,000.
‘However, these are conservative average levels of debt, based solely on student loan debt and exclude credit card, professional loans and other debts.
• ‘There is the potential that some students could incur debts up to and beyond £100,000 if fees are set at £10,000 or above by medical schools.’
Responding to the report, Dr Hamish Meldrum, Chairman of the BMA Council said: ‘The BMA is encouraged that Lord Browne recognises that there are special circumstances pertaining to degrees like medicine, in terms of the cost of study and the social benefit they bring, that need to be examined.
‘We will wait for further details from the government on how these will be interpreted.
‘It is also pleasing that Lord Browne has raised the income level at which loans will be paid back.
‘However, it is deeply disappointing that he has decided to recommend a set of proposals which, at their heart, will lead to crippling levels of debt for future medical students.
‘The five-year medical degree is already an expensive undertaking because of its length, costly course materials and an intensive programme of study that leaves students with little room for taking on part-time work to supplement their fees.
‘If tuition fees are increased further then students are looking at incredibly high levels of debt that could reach as much as £100,000.
‘At this level many potential students from low-income families would be discouraged from applying to become the doctors of the future.
‘Already just one in seven successful applicants currently comes from the lowest-income backgrounds.
‘The BMA will be writing to Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, in order to ask him to abandon the most damaging recommendations.
‘If they are implemented they could place a massive financial barrier in front of talented students who have the potential to become great assets to the NHS and patients.’
Karin Purshouse, Chair of the BMA’s Medical Students Committee, said: ‘All students will be outraged by the underlying direction of travel in Lord Browne’s recommendations that ignores the culture of debt that has been created by the tuition-fee system.
‘Like many medical students I am already facing high levels of debt and relying on financial support from my parents.
‘If fees had been higher when I started studying I would have thought twice about beginning a medical degree.
‘The BMA strongly urges the government to look again at the BMA’s proposal for a forgivable loan system for medical students that would allow student loan debt to be reduced for each year a doctor is employed by the NHS.
‘This would truly open up medicine to people from all backgrounds, as well as increase the likelihood that UK educated students would remain in the UK.
‘We do live in difficult economic times, but we must not increase debt to levels that deter people from all parts of our society from going to medical school.’
The National Union of Teachers condemned the review’s recommendations as ‘a disaster for social justice and for the economy’.
NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: ‘Yet again we see education proposals being put forward which will simply drive a wedge between the opportunities afforded to those with money and those without.
‘The raising of tuition fees will mean that many less well off families will simply not be able to countenance the increased costs that students will have to bear after qualification.
‘It will be a disaster for social justice and for the economy.
‘Raising fees to £5,000 would be likely to cause a five per cent drop in applications from certain socio-economic backgrounds
‘Research by Leicester University says we would see a potentially disastrous drop in numbers in applications.
‘For example, London Metropolitan University accepted 6,115 Black Minority & Ethnic (BME) students in 2007/08; almost as many as the 7,815 BME students spread between the 20 universities of the Russell Group.
‘The raising of fees would impact severely on working class and BME students.
‘It’s clear that diversity in our universities will also be affected by a substantial cut in teaching funding and the removal of all financial support from the state for arts, humanities and languages degrees.
‘Restricting funding to specific courses will also result in a more selective higher education, potentially denying access to certain students creating a decrease rather than an increase in social mobility.
‘In the light of these proposals I cannot see how Lord Browne’s suggestion of a radical overhaul of careers advice given to students can mean anything other than dissuading the majority from going to university.
‘If the 50 per cent target of young people attending higher education is dropped, opportunities will be restricted.
‘No matter how these proposals are dressed up what they will create are elite institutions catering for a minority of better off students.
‘Education is the major factor in social mobility.
‘If these proposals go ahead social justice will be the casualty.’