Health chiefs rattled by reports of a shortage of National Health Service dentists are pushing dental schools to increase student numbers by admitting reserve list candidates, The Times Higher can reveal.
Deans of dental schools have reacted angrily to a series of confidential emails from the Department of Health's National Dental Development Unit, on behalf of Raman Bedi, the chief dental officer, suggesting they increase UK undergraduate student numbers for this October intake by 5 per cent.
The first of these emails, which was passed anonymously to The Times Higher , says: "I would be grateful if you could let me know whether it is possible at this stage in the year to admit more undergraduates than planned, perhaps by using a reserve list?"
The request, which asks for an immediate response from deans, has been interpreted by many as a kneejerk reaction by the chief dental officer to embarrassing media pictures of people queueing around the block for an NHS dental appointment.
Paul Wright, chair of the Council of Deans of Dental Schools (CDDS), said:
"To try to take extra students at this late stage could cause major problems with the admissions process."
Dental schools might be open to legal challenge if A-level grade points are reduced to squeeze in extra students, with candidates who had decided not to accept the original grade offer claiming unfair treatment.
Professor Wright, who is dean of dentistry at Barts and The London, Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry, said that UK dental schools were already at full capacity in terms of student intake.
He added that they were struggling in terms of cash and resources, which would make it very difficult for them to sustain any expansion in student numbers.
Professor Wright explained: "All of the dental schools feel they are pretty much at the minimum number of academic staff for the number of students they have. Any increase in student numbers would need to be met by new funding."
One dental school dean, who asked not to be named, said: "We are taking ten or 15 more students a year than we are supposed to, and we are already at the limit for providing good quality teaching."
The CDDS has written to the government saying that dental schools will not agree to extra student numbers without a promise of increased long-term funding.
A paper submitted to the government by the CDDS and Universities UK last September called for an emergency injection of capital for dental hospitals. It estimated that an extra £1 million was needed for every dental hospital in England.
The council has been pushing the DH to publish the final report of its review of the dental workforce, which was expected about eight months ago.
There are now fears that this quick-fix suggestion could derail hopes for a more fundamental expansion of the dental sector.
David Gordon, dean of the faculty of medicine, dentistry, nursing and pharmacy at Manchester University, said: "I'd much rather have a good solution than a quick solution."
A spokesperson for the DH refused to comment on the plans for extra student numbers, but said that it would be making a "big announcement" about its review of the dental workforce in the next few weeks.