COVID-19 and medical student finance: a crisis during a crisis?

by Chris Smith

The coronavirus pandemic has compounded the financial obstacles medical students face

Location: UK
Published: Thursday 30 July 2020
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Beans on toast for the third time in a week.

Sticking on an extra jumper when it gets cold instead of adjusting the thermostat. Hoping no one will notice the small hole in your placement trousers until student-loan day arrives.

One or more of these situations may not be alien to significant numbers of our student members, as a medical student’s finances can be tight at the best of times. Indeed, the BMA’s own survey from 2018 showed that 68 per cent of medical students were under more financial pressure than they expected they would be in before starting medical school, with more than 70 per cent reporting that they were cutting down on essentials such as heating, food or professional clothing to try and make ends meet. But as with so many other aspects of our day-to-day life the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened all that. Existing issues have been exacerbated and new strains on medical students’ bank balances are being identified on a regular basis.

That is why the BMA is clear that these unprecedented times call for extraordinary support for our student members and their finances. To this end, we’ve released a position statement on the implications of COVID-19 on medical student finances.

The pandemic has highlighted what we’ve known for a long time: an overhaul of the student finance model is more necessary than ever. The re-introduction of maintenance grants for all students would give much needed security without the fear of overwhelming debt, while a Government move to increase the paltry student loans and other sources of financial support that it makes available would give people some breathing space. We are constantly told to be emotionally resilient as we train, but this can be impossible when financial anxiety plagues your mind owing to the fact that there is no resilience in the finance system that students rely on – even more so during unforeseen life events or a global crisis.

Where clinical placements have been cancelled, we ask that the bodies responsible for administering fees work with students in innovative ways to ensure they have enough money to live on. If fees have been paid for placements that haven’t taken place, they should be carried over to when the placements take place, refunded if placements are no longer going to take place, or if beneficial to students who are particularly struggling financially at this time, refunded and then students asked to pay the fees again at a later date before their placements are due to take place. We cannot allow students to be left out of pocket by factors beyond their control.

As the university sector has been marketised and education commodified, fees have crept even further into our degrees, from exam resits to lump sums made out to the university to cover student transport. Given the financial pressure that medical students are under at this time and that examinations and assessments are currently being taken online – a format that may be unfamiliar to students – we ask that universities waive non-tuition related fees wherever possible at this time, where they may have been demanded in the past.

However, it’s not just more money that is needed – although that would certainly be a good start. Accommodation providers – whether they be universities, housing associations or private landlords – must offer flexibility to students who need to change their living arrangements to fit the demands of placements, shielding requirements or new employment. This may mean students are allowed to stay in hospital accommodation for longer and for free if they can’t go home to shielding parents, or it may mean that rent is waived for accommodation that students have committed to but now cannot use.

COVID-19 will continue to affect medical students’ finances for the foreseeable future and its lasting effects on the economy could be felt for decades. The BMA will continue to advocate for a fairer financial system to underpin higher education, so that medical students can focus on learning during their lectures and placements, and not fixate on how we’ll pay to facilitate them.

Chris Smith is BMA medical students committee co-chair

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