Training growth may lay foundations to new medical school

April 23, 1999

The expansion of England's medical education sector could result in the United Kingdom's first new medical school in nearly 30 years, as well as almost 1,000 extra student places, writes Julia Hinde.

A joint implementation group of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Department of Health is expected to make an announcement next month.

The move is a response to recommendations by the Medical Workforce Standing Advisory Committee, which last year advised a 20 per cent increase in medical training places. The report said the increase was necessary to avoid further reliance on non-UK-trained doctors, who constitute a quarter of NHS medics.

The implementation group met in late March to assess 21 bids for student places. The group is believed to have asked for more evidence regarding one joint application, which includes Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth and The Open University.

Among the bids, three include plans for medical schools - one in the Southwest, a second at the University of East Anglia and a third at Hull University. A number of schools hope to expand by joining forces with neighbouring universities that have access to different hospitals and trusts. These include London's Guys, King's and St Thomas's School of Medicine with Kent, and Liverpool with Lancaster.

Some extra places have already been distributed to schools as part of the 1999 intake, leaving about 850 places still available.

Among the criteria being scrutinised by the implementation group are geographic demand, openness of access, quality of course and cost.

The Open University is pinning its hopes on the southwest peninsula of England. With no undergraduate medical school west of Bristol, the region is noticeably lacking in medical training, a point not lost on Robert Sneyd, acting dean of the postgraduate medical school at Plymouth University. "The southwest peninsula has 10 per cent of the population but trains just 3 per cent of doctors," Mr Sneyd said.

Lack of provision is the basis for Leicester and Warwick universities' bid in the West Midlands, although Birmingham University Medical School will take 232 students next year and is bidding for 100 more.

The issue of wider access also seems to be a key issue among the bidders.

St George's Hospital Medical School has proposed a four-year course for graduates of any subject, while Leicester University will launch an access course for science graduates this September.

Cambridge and Hull universities are also thought to have proposed short courses for graduates, while The Open University is putting forward a bid for a foundation course that would enable graduates to study part-time at home before entering the third year at either Leeds University medical school or the proposed southwest peninsula school.

The implementation group and the General Medical Council, which accredits medical degrees, will be concerned that an increase in numbers does not affect quality.

While Newcastle's medical school must be quietly confident, having just scored full marks in its teaching quality assessment (it is the first English medical school to be assessed), the final outcome remains little more than healthy speculation.

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