Deans snub Milburn over student letter

June 29, 2001

Medical deans have snubbed health secretary Alan Milburn by refusing to forward a letter from him to their students. The letter expresses the hope that students will work in the National Health Service.

Ken Fleming, head of the medical sciences division at Oxford University, said: "We train doctors for the world, we are not producing cannon fodder for the NHS."

He described the letter as "offensive" and said: "It is wrong to expose school-leavers to party politics. We will definitely not be sending this letter to our students."

The letter, addressed to "new medical student", said that the NHS plan, published last July, is an opportunity to rebuild the NHS for the 21st century.

"To enable you to participate in these developments we have been encouraging the development of more multi-professional elements in healthcare courses and I hope you will find these beneficial when you join the NHS team in the future," Mr Milburn writes.

A draft was sent to the council of heads of medical schools for comment. Universities UK made a representation to the Department of Health. A spokesperson said: "A letter from the chief medical officer for the DoH and the Department for Education and Skills, which welcomes students to the medical profession, may be more appropriate."

Graeme Catto, dean of the Guy's, King's and St Thomas' Hospitals Medical and Dental School was surprised at the health secretary's interest in medical students and said he would "wearily" forward it to students.

Some medical schools suspect there is a secret agenda to transfer their funding from the DFES to the DoH.

Sir Keith Peters, regius professor of physic at Cambridge, said: "We have sent the letter to all our senior tutors and there are mixed feelings. The letter should certainly come from both secretaries of state involved."

But Reg Jordan, deputy dean of medicine at Newcastle University, said:

"Personally, I find nothing offensive in the letter. It is a reality that medical students will work in the NHS. We couldn't have expanded our student numbers without the support of all the acute hospital trusts in this region and 150 general practices."

The DoH had not anticipated any problems with the letter, but a spokesman said it was working with the council of heads to re-draft it.

  • Student leaders are concerned that a trend towards extending medical courses from five to six years could put trainee doctors further in debt, writes Cherry Canovan .

Two of London's medical schools - at University College London and Imperial College - run six-year undergraduate medical courses in place of the usual five. It is expected that others will follow suit.

Many medical schools provide the option of a sixth intercalated year spent studying for a BSc, but few make it compulsory.

With a six-year course, the advantage is that all students receive a bachelor's degree as well as their medical qualification, as has always been the case at Oxford and Cambridge. But Brian Hogan, medical students and sites officer at the UCL union, said the extra cost could put off some students.

"It is an extra year to finance," he said. "People will be put off from applying because of the cost of supporting yourself in London."

He said the longer course had real benefits. "You do some extra research, which is something a bit different from medicine. You also have an extra qualification."

UCL medical school admissions sub-dean Brenda Cross said 70 per cent of students on the five-year course had chosen to intercalate.

And she added that bursaries were available.

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