Access to medicine courses ‘going backwards’, warns Kevin Fong

Science communicator and hospital consultant warns narrow selection of people accessing prestigious subjects is harming society 

November 27, 2019
Kevin Fong at THE Live
Kevin Fong at THE Live

Access to prestigious courses like medical degrees has become less equitable and that has contributed to the divides in British society that emerged during events like the Brexit referendum, a leading scientist has warned.

Kevin Fong, a consultant anaesthetist at University College London Hospitals and a prominent science communicator, said intakes on to medicine programmes in particular were now “very different” from when he trained to be a doctor.

In a keynote speech at Times Higher Education’s THE Live event, Professor Fong – who himself went to a state comprehensive school and switched to medicine later after initially studying physics – said that there were not enough genuine points of access to such courses for people later in life.

“I have watched what’s happened to us in medicine and our intakes now are very different from when I did medicine,” he said.

There was too much of an “arbitrary” selection of people at certain ages like 18 and then no point of access later on, Professor Fong explained. “If you are not a certain type of person then you are never going to access these types of courses,” he added.

Answering questions later, Professor Fong said that, despite record participation rates, the UK had “actually moved back” in terms of access to higher education so that some people felt like “life is over” if you do not make the grade at 18.

The problem also fed directly into the issue of whether non-graduates felt as though they had a stake in society, a key aspect of the divides that have been exposed since the Brexit vote.

“Universities need to make themselves less ‘walled cities within cities’,” the TV science presenter said. “That is much more than going out and chatting in pubs at lunchtime. That means providing points of access to people who have no chance of access.

“If you’re going to overcome the things that divide our country and other countries, you are going to have to find a way to make people feel less like they’re inside an impenetrable, unbreachable [tribe] and more like they could [move] between those boundaries…and I think at the moment we have created something which is completely the opposite.”

Professor Fong also said that public engagement had “never been more important” for universities, although he added that academics needed to be better equipped on how to communicate the nuances of scientific uncertainty.

“The problem is that the forces that you are doing battle with [when trying to communicate science] don’t have any of those reservations about what is known and unknown,” he added.

“So you get people out there saying ‘measles was a harmless childhood infection, I had it’”, despite the evidence that thousands of young children were dying from the disease as vaccination rates tumbled.

Elsewhere in his talk, Professor Fong warned universities not to be too complacent about massive open online courses, despite it seeming like they had not yet challenged the business model of traditional campus institutions in the ways that many had predicted.

He said similar technological changes – like digital television – were slow to change people’s habits at first but then after two decades the landscape had completely shifted.

“I wouldn’t be too complacent about Moocs just yet. A higher education institution has to…really ask itself what it’s offering beyond the Mooc that makes a live presence worth it,” Professor Fong said.

“If what you’re offering in a lecture theatre is just sort of an inconvenient Mooc then you are going to die pretty quickly.”

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