Winning a university place to train as a doctor is now harder than it has been for at least a generation, an investigation by The Times Higher has revealed.
Despite fears that the government push to increase medical student numbers would dumb down medical degrees, university admissions officers report that they turned away thousands of high-quality candidates this year due to the fierce competition for places in medical schools.
Many university medical schools are considering raising their offer levels to cope with the steady increase in numbers of medical applicants, and it is likely that next year few will continue to accept students with less than two grade As and one B at A level.
John Kay, admissions tutor at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said:
"This year has been the toughest year for a candidate to get in to medicine for at least a generation.
"A huge number of people who have done everything you could possibly ask candidates to do just haven't got a place."
Dr Kay confirmed that his school, which is one of the newest in the country, will raise its offer levels in 2005. He anticipated that the London-based medical schools would follow suit.
Some medical schools will also make fewer offers in 2005, having strained their budgets by underestimating how many students would accept their offers this year. Bristol University confirmed that it would have to admit about 50 extra students this autumn, and other medical schools are being forced to take about 20 more students than they had anticipated.
Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol, said: "Student behaviour is becoming more unpredictable. We would normally expect about 37 per cent to go firm on offers, but this year in medicine it moved to 53 per cent. We don't know why."
The number of people applying to study medicine nationally has risen by 50 per cent in two years, making it the third most popular subject after law and psychology.
This year, Birmingham University Medical School had more than 2,000 applicants for about 370 places. A thousand of these reached interview stage, and it took seven months to see them all.
Chris Lote, medical admissions tutor at Birmingham, said: "This is why you get cases such as Laura Spence. There are so many competing for each place."
He added: "Some people with excellent grades will end up not getting places. Doctors have to have other qualities apart from being excellent academics."
Typically, universities want prospective medical students to demonstrate well-roundedness and strong communication skills, as well as proving that studying medicine is their idea and not simply the ambition of their parents or teachers.
But institutions stressed this week that tough competition and high offer levels would not stop them admitting students from underprivileged backgrounds.
David Gordon, chair of the Council of Heads of Medical Schools and dean of the faculty of medicine at Manchester University, said: "Medical schools nationally are trying to be inventive with their admissions procedures."
Manchester University Medical School sends staff into state schools to identify individuals who could be candidates for medicine but may feel such a career is out of their reach.
These students are given a student mentor within the medical school and all the assistance they need to reach the steep grade requirements to get into medicine. They are guaranteed an interview if they apply.
Professor Gordon said: "We are not letting people into medicine with three Es, but we are helping them onto the ladder."
The Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills are believed to be discussing whether the UK needs to boost trainee doctor numbers.
Any such increase would be likely to mean the introduction of one or more new medical schools.
Professor Gordon said: "Collectively, we believe a modest increase in student numbers could be coped with. The quality of students coming through remains very, very high."