Check your reflexes on UK’s first private medical school

Kevin Fong examines his responses to £35,000 a year degree

January 22, 2015

Aaaaaaaaand we’re back. Sort of. There’s still plenty of inertia in evidence even this late into January, proving that academics are hibernating mammals after all. Having been laid low by the male variant of the influenza virus before Christmas, even I took a little time to get going this year.

There are 336 days until Christmas and more than 2,000 before the likely date of the announcement of the next research excellence framework results, at the end of 2020. So there are no pressing deadlines to force anyone back out on to the pitch.

On the contrary, there are only 104 days until the general election, which is the best encouragement I’ve yet heard for searching out the duvet cave, crawling back into it and leaving a sign outside that says: “Do not disturb until a particularly sunny day in June.”

Tuition fees seem to be off the menu for this election. Despite earlier indications that Labour might do so, none of the parties is pledging even to cut fees, never mind rewinding the clock to the days before you had to pay anything. High fees are now a fact of life. If anything, we’re headed in the opposite direction to cutting them. Recent reports that more than 500 candidates – the majority of whom came from the UK – applied for 67 places on the University of Buckingham’s new £35,000 a year medical degree tells you something about the extent to which at least some prospective undergraduates have come to accept higher education as a luxury retail item.

If you add in living costs, the total sum of money required to attend Buckingham’s four and a half year course is approaching the average cost of a house in the UK

It’s hard to know how to feel about that. Some commentators have worried that in an era when we’re trying to improve the socio-economic diversity in our medical student population, the developments at Buckingham are a retrograde step.

But if the students attending Buckingham’s course – the first cohort of whom begin this month – have jumped through the same academic hoops as their counterparts at publicly funded medical schools, then good luck to them, I guess. There is, as far as I can tell, no existential threat to publicly funded medical schools here: no sense that this is the thin end of a wedge whose thick end ultimately sees medical education handed over entirely to private providers. If you look at it in a glass-half-full kind of way, there is even the potential for some innovation in the delivery of the undergraduate medical syllabus without taxpayers’ money being put at risk.

Buckingham itself has stated that its principal target market is overseas students, so one could regard its initiative simply as an attempt to exploit higher education as an export product. And, despite the strong domestic demand for places on Buckingham’s course, I can’t see the private sector ever being in a position to deliver any significant fraction of our future junior doctor workforce because the size of the debt an ordinary student would carry after paying fees at Buckingham levels would be so large that it is hard to see how it could be managed in any normal UK medical career. If you add in living costs, the total sum of money required to attend Buckingham’s four and a half year course is approaching the average cost of a house in the UK. Doctors in the UK are – without argument – very well paid in absolute terms. But they’re not that well paid.

I usually reach for my reflex set of reservations when I see the private sector circling either higher education or healthcare. And here we have a privately funded institution – albeit a not-for-profit one – involving itself simultaneously in both. But I’d like to believe that what the University of Buckingham has launched is first and foremost a medical school rather than a cash cow. And while there will be a number of students who finance a Buckingham medical degree via the Bank of (multimillionaire) Mum and Dad, or via a previous successful but conscience-troubling career in the financial sector, I would like to believe that they have arrived with not dissimilar motivations to any other fresh bunch of medical students.

The proof of that, of course, will be seen in the destinations and trajectories the students choose after graduation. Apparently, on the first day of their course, they received an opening address from David Nott, a consultant vascular surgeon who has spent much of his career travelling to war-torn regions, treating casualties and training local physicians and surgeons to do the same. (As a rule of thumb in international disaster medicine, if Nott is entering a country that you are in then it’s probably time you were thinking about leaving it.)

Nott, who has recently returned from a particularly hairy trip to Syria, is the sort of inspiring figure you hope you might one day grow up to be – and someone whose professional motivation is pretty much anything but financial. If people like him continue to be the focus of Buckingham students’ inspiration and aspiration then there really is nothing more to do than to wish them the best of luck.

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