Ministers were under pressure this week to rethink how medical schools will levy tuition fees from 2006 amid calls for graduate medical students to get the same financial support as undergraduates.
More than 3,800 people have visited the website medschoolsonline to sign a petition backed by the British Medical Association's student committee that calls for graduate medical students to be allowed to defer paying tuition fees until their course ends. Under the Government's plans, undergraduate medical students will defer paying their £3,000-a-year tuition fees until after graduation, but graduates joining medical courses must pay upfront.
Ross Spackman, a medical student and the BMA representative for Bristol University medical students, took his concerns to an MP. In a letter to Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West and a member of the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee, Mr Spackman writes: "If (graduate) students were faced with having to pay an additional £3,000 each year for the first four years, I fear this financial barrier would significantly reduce their numbers, and certainly such an additional debt burden would put off those from less affluent backgrounds."
Mr Williams was unavailable for comment.
The BMA and the Council of Heads of Medical Schools warned Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, in a letter last month that the fee difference for graduates and undergraduates threatened to deter older and more experienced candidates from studying medicine.
The Department for Education and Skills has different fee arrangements for undergraduates and graduates, but a spokeswoman said graduates wishing to study medicine could apply for the same maintenance loan as undergraduates for the first four years of a course and could also seek a means-tested National Health Service bursary in the fifth year and a reduced-rate loan.
"In addition, the NHS pays the fees of medical and dental students from the fifth year onwards," the spokeswoman said.
In a separate development, the Royal College of Physicians published the findings of a survey of trainee doctors and medical students that shows that 80 per cent felt that a drop in "medical professionalism", partly related to changes in medical education, would push doctors to quit.
One in three of the 2,175 respondents to the survey said that there had been a decrease in the extent to which undergraduate medical training was guided by the profession in the past five years.
But 44 per cent said there had been a rise in the degree to which the profession was directing postgraduate training.
Declan Chard, chairman of the RCP trainees committee, said: "Many trainees believe that medical professionalism is being challenged to a degree that they may consider leaving medicine; ultimately, this will have a negative effect on patient care."