Charity urges caution as think tank calls for end of support for medical students
Scrapping England’s student NHS bursary risks cutting disadvantaged people off from the medical profession, the Sutton Trust social mobility charity has warned.
On 14 September, the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank published a briefing claiming that the bursary—a grant for students of medicine or dentistry in the later stages of their course—is a “handout” that benefits high-earning former medical students, many of whom end up working outside the NHS or overseas.
But Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said taking this money away from students could cement medicine’s elitist reputation.
He said the charity’s research highlighted that “the top of the medical profession is populated by those from independent schools”.
“We should be making sure that a career in medicine is not predominantly accessible to the better-off,” Lampl told Research Professional News.
For undergraduates in England, the means-tested bursary covers tuition fees and some living costs, but the IFS believes the money could be put to better use.
“Scrapping the NHS Bursary would be relatively small change: about £100 million in savings are tiny compared with an overall NHS England budget of £160 billion,” the IFS briefing states. “A better use of the money spent on the NHS Bursary would be to improve pay and working conditions of medical graduates who actually do work in the NHS.”
Ben Waltmann, senior research economist at the IFS, said the bursary “addresses a problem we don’t have: recruiting enough students for medical school places”.
“It would be much better to redirect funding towards a problem we do have; namely, retaining doctors in the NHS once they have been trained,” he added. “Targeting funding to where it is most effective will be increasingly important as the NHS continues to expand its workforce.”
Lampl also has an eye on effectiveness, but with a different conclusion. He would like to see support spread to other categories of students.
“Any change to the NHS bursary should look at the support provided to students across the NHS professions rather than just for medicine,” he says.
“This is to avoid funnelling less well-off young people towards other health professions and away from medicine for financial reasons. We should also ensure that medical students have adequate access to maintenance support to live on, in whichever form that is provided.”