Top-up fees will be waived for all trainee doctors and dentists in their final two years as part of a multimillion pound government drive to get more people from poor backgrounds into the medical professions.
John Hutton, the Health Minister, confirmed he would waive tuition fees for trainee doctors and dentists in their fifth and sixth years. The waiver also applies to the final years of those on fast-track medical and dental degrees. In total, the waivers will cost the taxpayer an estimated £3.3 million in 2006-07.
Medical and dental students are already exempt from tuition fees in their final years but the Government waited until this week to confirm that the waiver would apply to top-up fees when they are introduced in 2006.
Mr Hutton also announced £9 million for nine regional schemes to boost the recruitment of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals from poor backgrounds. The schemes will involve local universities and will include initiatives to raise the aspirations and attainment of schoolchildren.
Mr Hutton said: "These projects and the Government's commitment to meet medical and dental students' tuition fees will open doors for young people from low-income backgrounds who would previously never have thought about a career in the NHS. We need more doctors, nurses and health professionals from all walks of life. It is unacceptable that some people are in effect held back because of their financial, social or cultural background."
Mr Hutton said research showed that nearly three-quarters of medical school students come from the highest three social classes. Meanwhile, relatively few Asians apply for nursing, and black and other ethnic groups have difficulty in securing places to train as health professionals.
The nine projects will cover the east of England, the East Midlands, London, the Northeast, the Northwest, the Southeast, the Southwest, Yorkshire and Humberside and the West Midlands.
They are funded by the Department of Health and the Higher Education Funding Council for England as part of AimHigher, a widening participation initiative involving Hefce, the Department for Education and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council.
The London scheme will target African-Caribbean students and will work with young people and their parents to build an understanding of the qualities, skills and qualifications students will need to train in healthcare.
John Rushforth, Hefce's director of widening participation, said: "These schemes are an important step forward in ensuring that the healthcare professions better reflect the wider population."
Meanwhile, the AimHigher fund has released almost £1 million for a "flagship outreach exercise" to boost interest in the study of chemistry and as a career.
The cash was granted in response to a bid by the Royal Society of Chemistry, 12 universities, three pharmaceutical companies and two sector-skills councils. It is believed to be the largest government grant for teaching and learning in a single science field.
It follows two years of talks between the RSC, universities, industry representatives, school leaders and Hefce about how to breathe new life into chemistry and make it more popular.
Architects of the project, Chemistry: The Next Generation, say it will demonstrate the importance of chemical sciences in everyday life while showing how a chemistry degree can lead to exciting career opportunities.
It will give pupils access to state-of-the-art university laboratories and allow them to visit companies engaged in cutting-edge chemical sciences.
The project will be run in three areas initially - the East Midlands, the Northwest and London.