The struggle to widen participation in university medicine and healthcare courses was given a boost this week with the announcement of £3 million additional funding from the Department of Health and the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The investment is much needed as medical schools are finding it particularly difficult to deliver the government's widening participation agenda.
Seven out of ten medical students come from professional or managerial backgrounds and fewer than one in five from families where the main source of income is from manual or routine work.
The Council for Heads of Medical Schools estimates that Hefce's shift in policy on teaching funding to reward departments that have succeeded in widening access cost medical schools about £20 million in 2002-03.
The new funding, launched by health minister John Hutton at a widening participation in healthcare conference on Monday, will pay for ambitious and innovative schemes as well as developing existing partnerships in higher education.
Mr Hutton told delegates: "We are not robbing Peter to pay Paul. This is genuine new money. I'm very excited about some of the work that is already going on in universities but there is still a great deal to be done."
A spokesperson for the DoH told The THES the department was keen to fund a wide variety of proposals, such as projects to attract more Asians to nursing courses. While there are many Asian doctors, there are relatively few Asian nurses.
The department is also keen to look at gender imbalance in healthcare disciplines. About 60 per cent of medical students are women, and the figure increases to 70 per cent on courses such as physiotherapy.
Speakers at the conference stressed that medicine and healthcare had a long way to go in terms of widening participation. Eric Thomas, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, called for more work to enlighten schoolchildren about medicine. He said: "Medicine needs to change its image. It lives on a peninsula from society."
Elizabeth Rasekoala, director of the Afro-Caribbean Network for Science and Technology, told the conference that universities needed to work much harder to attract black and minority ethnic communities.
She said: "We need to go out to black communities and ask parents why their children are not coming into medicine. It is about time the medical profession left its ivory towers and engaged with black minorities."