Pharmacy recruitment may be unhealthy in high doses

Lack of enrolment caps could leave many out of work, warns student group. Elizabeth Gibney writes

October 25, 2012

An "unsustainable" rise in pharmacy provision in UK universities risks leaving thousands of graduates without jobs, the British Pharmaceutical Students' Association has warned.

The association predicts that the number of students graduating in pharmacy from UK universities will soon outstrip the number of NHS and community pharmacy training positions available - placements that graduates must complete in order to become registered pharmacists.

Not only would this constitute a "ludicrous" waste of resources, it would be "unethical" for universities to offer degrees that lead nowhere, said BPSA president Vikesh Kakad.

"Students spend a huge amount of money on their education and it's not fair," he said.

According to the association, the number of undergraduates studying pharmacy doubled between 1999 and 2009, with growth expected to continue. Next year alone will see the opening of three new schools of pharmacy, at the universities of Birmingham, Durham and Lincoln.

Unlike courses for other healthcare professionals in the UK, recruitment to pharmacy degrees is not subject to controls and universities are under no obligation to find placements for their graduates.

Placements are likely to become more scarce as the Department of Health, which funds the £18,000-a-year posts, tightens its belt and the jobs market becomes further saturated, claims a BPSA discussion paper, titled "The imbalance between pre-registration training and undergraduate pharmacy student numbers".

But senior management at universities still mistakenly see pharmacy as an area with great potential for growth in student numbers, said John Smart, chairman of the Pharmacy Schools Council.

"If you're a vice-chancellor and you are struggling with tight controls on student numbers and higher fees, you are going to be looking for courses where you can recruit at AAB-level and students are willing to pay £9,000 a year for four years," he told Times Higher Education.

"Pharmacy, at the moment, is one of those courses, as everyone believes they will get an interesting, well-paid job at the end of it. But we can see how unlikely that is to continue...if we let numbers run riot," said Professor Smart, who is also head of the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of Brighton.

He noted that the council, as a member of the independent Modernising Pharmacy Careers Board, was lobbying the government and the Higher Education Funding Council for England over the issue.

The council would like to see pharmacy treated more like medicine or dentistry, with a body to control entry to undergraduate courses, he said.

Discussions with Hefce and the Department of Health are also under way on the introduction of a five-year university course that includes the placement, he added. However, no decision has yet been made.

Meanwhile, a report commissioned by the Institute of Physics and published on 11 October found that prospective students in physics were less likely than the average student to be deterred by annual tuition fees of £9,000.

But the increased cost may have an impact on access, says the report, Gravitating Towards Physics: How Will Higher Fees Affect the Choices of Prospective Physics Students?, carried out by the market research firm YouthSight.

The report found that although fees had no impact on "traditional" physics students, many of those in already under-represented groups - such as women, ethnic minorities and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds - said they were more worried about new fee levels and incurring debt.

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