What is widening participation?
Widening participation is an initiative that seeks to give the opportunity to anyone who has the ability and desire, whatever their background, to enter higher education.
Mita Dhuillipala, MSC widening participation lead 2015-2016
In the UK, medicine and being a doctor has traditionally been seen as a career for the elite or privileged in British society.
Although the medical profession has sought to combat this over recent decades, the recent Selecting for Excellence report released in 2014 which examined the issue of widening participation into medicine, found that 80% of all medical students in the UK stem from just 20% of schools.
Despite efforts to increase gender parity and ethnic diversity amongst UK doctors, the lack of people from lower socio economic backgrounds entering the profession is still a reality.
With such demanding entry criteria into medical school, it is important that candidates to medical schools are selected in the fairest way possible. However concerns have been raised that some students, despite having the necessary aptitude to study medicine, are being excluded from this career pathway, to the detriment of the profession.
Read more about the Selecting for Excellence report from the Medical Schools Council
Why is this a problem?
Thinking about how and why widening participation is recognised, try answering the following questions:
- Did your parents go to university? Are your parents or anyone in your family a doctor? Did your parents job require them to have a degree from university?
- Were you eligible for free school meals at school? Did you grow up in a single parent family? Were you ever in care or living with relatives that weren't your parents?
- At secondary school, were you expected to achieve high grades? Were you given high expectations to aspire to, like pursuing medicine as a career?
- What resources did you have access to primary or secondary school? Were teachers or career advisors on hand to talk to about your career? Were you offered help with your university applications or gaining work experience to support your application?
- Did you, your family or friends regard university as too expensive or not for 'someone like you'?
These questions cover just a few of the reasons that determine when a student may be considered from a disadvantaged background, and therefore in the minority when it comes to the people who are successfully entering medical school, becoming doctors and treating patients in the NHS.
As the UK demographics change and the aspirations of the national health service increase, we need to ensure that medical schools select students based on merit but that they also encourage those with the potential to study medicine to regard it as a viable option, irrespective of their socio economic circumstances.
Widening participation is not just about ensuring those with the potential to become a doctor are given the opportunity, but also ensuring that the NHS is reflective and understanding of the needs of its patients into the future.
What is being done?
All 33 UK medical schools are required to have some kind of outreach scheme that widens access to courses that lead to professional careers, including medicine.
The outreach schemes on offer vary with some medical schools offering summer school for secondary students that assist with medical school applications and gaining work experience, to primary school outreach that seeks to inspire children at a young age to consider medicine.
Universities like King's College London offer a six year extended medical degree programme, that has dedicated places for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The course uses contextual admissions data for entry and provides extra support for students by splitting the first year of medical school into two years.
If you think you may benefit from attending an outreach scheme, extra support or would like more information, contact the medical schools directly about what outreach they could offer you.
Read our comprehensive guide to becoming a doctor
See our map of all medical schools in the UK
We've pulled together some useful information and websites that can help if you need extra support with applying to medical school.