Pharmacy's huge growth as a university subject is creating a shortage of academic staff amid concerns that the unplanned expansion may destablise the discipline.
The expansion is being fuelled by the growing demand for qualified pharmacists and the financial gains for universities running the courses.
New schools of pharmacy have sprung up at the University of East Anglia and Kingston University, while Greenwich and Kent universities have teamed up to establish the Medway School of Pharmacy. Hertfordshire, Reading, Ulster, Wolverhampton and Central Lancashire universities are also considering establishing new schools.
Clare Mackie, head of Medway, is looking to recruit eight more staff this year. She said Medway had addressed recruitment problems by putting staff on more lucrative clinical lecturers' pay scales.
David Wright, senior lecturer at East Anglia's pharmacy school, said there was a shortage of academic pharmacists across the sector. Staff in his school regularly get offers of jobs elsewhere, he said. "Letting schools open without any controls is exacerbating the problem."
Keith Wilson, head of Aston University's pharmacy school, added: "Some expansion is necessary and some diversity is a good thing, but the fact that it's completely unplanned threatens to destabilise the existing system. The real problem is the scale and the speed of the expansion."
"Aston is fortunate in being supported by the local workforce directorate, but there's nothing standardised. It depends on the goodwill of local bodies and the university, which is not a robust way of taking things forward."
Schools had doubled their student intake over the past decade, and numbers would continue to rise, Professor Wilson said. "The problem is that there is already a shortage of academic staff in pharmaceutics and pharmacy practice. There's pressure to obtain people who are pharmacy-qualified, and academia has not been popular for pharmacists for a long time."
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain grants permission for new schools based on standards, but it has no remit to control growth. Sue Ambler, RPSGB's head of research, said: "It's not like doctors and dentists with Higher Education Funding Council for England and Department of Health funding, where numbers are controlled by what the National Health Service wants."
Pharmacy was originally in the technical sector and is not regulated by the National Health Service or the Department of Health. It is funded purely by Hefce as a science subject. As such, universities have seen pharmacy as a way to stem the tide of falling student numbers in other science subjects.
"There's no mechanism for workforce planning or to limit numbers. Universities have seen pharmacy as a good way of keeping their business going, and that's the problem," Dr Ambler said.
Student numbers had shot up, but staff numbers had not risen in parallel, Dr Ambler said. "The staff-to-student ratio has suffered, and this is compounded by the salary differential between practice and academic pharmacists. It's very difficult to recruit pharmacists, so the number of pharmacists who are going into pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmaceutics is plummeting, and we have a retirement bulge."
The RPSGB has done research on the pharmacy workforce to present to the DH by December.
A new government contract to allow pharmacists to offer a wider range of services, such as health checks, from April 2005 is putting more pressure on schools, which will have to provide professional training courses.
Medway expects to sign up 5,000 people for postgraduate training by the end of the year.