Government plans to improve healthcare in the UK are in jeopardy after the latest figures revealed that there may be too few medical lecturers to teach the next generation of doctors.
The number of young lecturers in medical schools has fallen by a third in the past three years, according to a survey by the Council of Heads of Medical Schools.
The survey has found that between 2000 and 2003 the number of researchers in medical schools fell by 18 per cent, the number of lecturers by 33 per cent and the number of readers and senior lecturers by 10 per cent. The number of professors rose by 6 per cent.
David Gordon, dean of the medical faculty at Manchester University and chair of the CHMS, said: "We are concerned that staff, particularly junior staff, are leaving universities for the National Health Service. The quality of medical education is hanging by a very thin thread. As people are promoted, there is no one to take their place."
He said that the recruitment crisis was so severe in some specialties that medical schools knew that there was no point even advertising and diverted the money to posts in other specialities.
"The old craft disciplines, such as surgery, anaesthetics and pathology, face particular recruitment problems," he said.
The shortage could have big political repercussions because Labour's commitment to save the NHS relies on the expansion of medical school places.
Medical academics are needed to teach the biggest expansion in student numbers ever. By next year, there will have been a 40 per cent increase in the number of medical students since 1998.
The survey also found a 14 per cent rise in vacant professorial posts, but Professor Gordon said the figure was an underestimate.
He said: "Financial constraints have forced many universities to withdraw previously established posts in academic medicine."
This week, a majority of medical academics voted to support a contract that would allow them to better balance their teaching, research and NHS commitments, and lead to a 15 per cent rise in average career earnings.
Michael Rees, chair of the British Medical Association's medical academic staff committee, said: "Academics are under severe pressure from both the NHS and universities to deliver clinical work, teaching and research.
Largely as a result of this heavy load, we face a recruitment crisis."
Gareth Williams, dean of medicine and dentistry at Bristol University, said: "The new contract will help only if pay parity is preserved and a certain amount of flexibility allowed."
He said that Bristol had carried out a survey on staff hours. It found that on average clinical academics worked 62 hours a week and spent 16 hours on research. Many worked more than 100 hours a week if they were on call.
"One of our professors is on call one night a week and frequently has to go out and literally save children's lives. In my day, students aspired to be a professor of medicine, now almost no one does. The loss of status of clinical academics is extraordinary," Professor Williams said.