Doctor quits Imperial over fees

April 20, 2001

A senior consultant responsible for admissions at Imperial College Medical School, London, has resigned because of tuition fees, cutbacks and bureaucracy.

Sarah Burnett, a consultant radiologist at St Mary's Hospital, was contracted for 30 per cent of her time by Imperial. She said: "Talk of charging students £19,500 a year in fees was the last straw. Students would leave with debts of around £135,000 - that would destroy access for all but the most privileged. As it is, students from poorer backgrounds are being excluded."

In March, Sir Richard Sykes, the new head of Imperial and former chief executive of GlaxoWellcome, was quoted in a Sunday newspaper as saying that students should be charged fees level with those paid by overseas students. For clinical medicine this is £19,500 a year.

Sir Richard also said that he was starting a fund to build up scholarships.

Dr Burnett said: "Medical students are in danger of being squeezed at both ends - fees at one end and the new consultants contract, which stops them doing private work for seven years, at the other end. In the United States, students come out with huge debts but can earn high amounts quickly."

She said that the government should consider a scheme whereby medical students paid no fees, but were contracted to work for the National Health Service for at least ten years after qualifying. "That would really allow access to medicine for dedicated students.

"I am also extremely alarmed at the ethical implications of going to pharmaceutical companies for scholarship funds," said Dr Burnett. "Would students funded by a particular drugs company feel obliged to prescribe their drugs?" She said that government policy on the funding of medical students was driving away students while there was a national shortage of doctors.

"At Imperial, we had 12.3 applicants per place for entry in 1998, 11.2 in 1999, 8.3 in 2000 and just 7.9 for entry in 2001," said Dr Burnett.

"We will be hard pushed to hit our target number of 326 students this year. This could involve a loss of thousands of pounds."

According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the number of applicants to medical schools was down 6.8 per cent nationally for entry in 2000 compared with the previous year. In 1999, the drop was 7.1 per cent and in 1998 it was 2.2 per cent. Imperial's bid for 100 extra medical students, in partnership with the University of Hertfordshire, has just been turned down by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Department of Health.

"I was against the increase in numbers unless more resources could be guaranteed for the admissions process," Dr Burnett said.

She claimed that the interface between the medical school and the NHS was not working, putting access policies in jeopardy.

"We have traditionally always interviewed for medical school places," she said. "We do about 1,000 interviews a year and 80 per cent of these are done by NHS staff. But there is no separate stream of funding for this. Already I have had to cancel 70 interviews this year as I can't find NHS staff willing to give up their clinical time to do it."

She said that if the school abandoned interviews, Muslim students in particular could suffer. "There is a danger that if admissions were based on Ucas forms alone, then these students would lose out even more. Many, for example, do not become head of the rugby team - the sort of extracurricular activity that gets you noticed."

According to Imperial's internal analysis of successful applications in its entry statistics for 2000, 17.5 per cent of white applicants got in, 17.4 per cent of Chinese, 16 per cent of Indian and just 7.7 per cent of Bangladeshi. Not one of the 17 black Caribbean students who applied got in.

Dr Burnett also said that she had to get her NHS secretary to type letters to applicants because of lack of resources.

Dr Burnett headed a team of six, with a budget of £5,000 above staff costs. This had to cover interview expenses, refreshments, some promotional activities and training in interviewing skills and equal opportunities for the 100-odd panel of assessors. "There was simply not enough money," she said.

A spokeswoman for Imperial College said it did not comment on individual members of staff.

This article was ammended on 13 July 2012.

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