Government considering increasing medical school places after A-level debacle

As the crisis surrounding this year’s A-level grades continues, ministers are now exploring enlarging the number of medical school places this year in an effort to ease the turmoil.

After a massive backlash over Ofqual’s handling of A-level results following the cancellation of exams this year, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson yielded to pressure and dramatically announced that students would now be awarded results as assessed by their teachers (so-called ‘centre assessment grades’ or ‘CAGs’).

This increased the grades of thousands of this year’s GCSE and A-level students, as teachers are more inclined to award more optimistic grades to their pupils.

After the U-turn, in common with numerous other university applicants, many prospective medical students who initially thought they had lost places offered by medical schools as they had failed to achieve the requisite grades were suddenly qualified to begin their studies.

The problem, however, is that universities, and especially those offering highly sought-after medical school places, had already filled most of this year’s available places before the Department for Education’s volte-face re-graded A-level results upwards.

Ministers have already lifted a cap on overall student numbers, but medical schools are subject to an additional cap, as the courses are considerably more expensive than other undergraduate degrees.

Medical degrees also require students to undertake multiple clinical placements during the course of their training, and these are also of limited availability.

The pandemic has significantly adversely affected the availability of these crucial clinical placements this year, resulting in a backlog: medical students must complete them before qualification as doctors.

This backlog is likely to compound availability problems for the coming cohort of new medical students beginning their studies from this autumn.

To accommodate more of this year’s students who are now qualified to progress to the medical courses they were originally offered, the Royal College of GPs has written to the government calling for a 20% increase in medical school places.

The College has also urged the government to provide additional funding to universities to assist them with the costs of this expansion in admissions.

There has also been a call from the higher education lobbying group Universities UK for “increasing flexibilities within the medical student numbers cap”.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast yesterday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed that the government was considering lifting the medical school cap.

He pointed to the biggest ever planned expansion in medical school places this year, but when pressed about the cap, said: “But I am absolutely looking into this issue.”

Later on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “Of course there’s now a huge number of pupils who have the grades and so we’re working, very much immediately, on how we can go further than we already (have).”

Dr Helena McKeown of the doctor’s professional association the BMA said that the organisation had urged medical schools to reconsider the applications of students who were denied places because of the unfair grading system.

She added: “The UK is vastly short of doctors so increasing the number of medics in training makes sense, however this must be followed up with support and funding for both the universities sector and the NHS further down the line.”

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