Medical schools in admissions crisis after A-level results U-turn

The government’s A-level results nightmare continues, with ministers coming under intense pressure to lift the cap on medical school places this year.

The calls come after this week’s A-level results U-turn threw university admissions plans into disarray.

A significant number of this year’s prospective medical students who had secured conditional offers from medical schools were rejected upon the publication of their Ofqual-moderated results.

Their teacher-predicted marks had been downgraded by the regulator’s moderation algorithm.

After a furious backlash from students, parents and schools, the government was forced into a humiliating climbdown, announcing on Monday that all A-level and GCSE students will, after all, be allowed to accept teacher-predicted grades if they are higher than Ofqual’s.

However, would-be medics who now find that they have the requisite grades have discovered that the change of heart came too late: the medical schools they had originally been accepted by had already filled all available places for this year by the time of the policy change.

As medical training is exceptionally expensive – around £50,000 per student per year for a four-to-five-year course, which is far in excess of student tuition fees – student numbers are regulated.

In addition, medicine is an intensely practical degree that requires students to engage in extended, hands-on clinical experience in NHS settings throughout their studies, so sufficient numbers of suitable clinical placements must be available for them.

Universities say that they have received an avalanche of angry calls from students and their families following this year’s results fiasco, with some warning that they will take legal action if an originally offered place is not made available to them.

The higher education lobby group Universities UK is now calling on the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to provide more funding for universities as some “will lose out from this very late policy change and will need significant financial support”.

According to the Guardian, however, this plea is unlikely to be heeded as forces inside the Treasury and the Department for Education are eager to use the crisis to reshape the higher education sector.

Meanwhile, the University of East Anglia’s academic director of admissions, Professor Richard Harvey, said that his medical school had 185 places but was now struggling to manage a likely overshoot of as many as 50 students who now have the required grades to begin their studies.

A number of leading universities have warned that asking students who had now received higher grades to defer their places until next year if no spaces are left on their chosen course is likely to compound admissions problems in 2021.

Students sitting their A-level exams next year will be facing far greater competition for places, as they will be up against those deferred from this year as well as the likely return of overseas students.

The government has removed caps on other university courses in the wake of the results controversy this year, but medical school places remain limited because of their much greater expense.

Professor Jenny Higham, principal of St George’s Hospital Medical School, University of London, has pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has already impacted current medical students, who have been unable to complete their practical clinical studies this year, leading to a backlog in places.

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