Fairness needed for student finance

In the midst of a cost of living crisis, the medical student finance system is no longer fit for purpose and works against would-be doctors of the future, writes Victoria Paice

Location: Northern Ireland
Published: Tuesday 23 August 2022
42442 Victoria paice BMA NI med students chair

Not a day seems to go by without a new report, survey or forecast on the cost-of-living crisis. It is an inescapable reality for all of us and one that is hitting medical students hard.

The effects of the crisis on medical students have been laid out clearly in the BMA’s latest student finance survey which has been published this week. In the report, six out of 10 medical students across the UK said they were having to cut down on essentials such as food, heating and clothing. More than half of those surveyed say they have to work during term time to fund their degree, with the majority of those who do work saying it has a detrimental impact on their studies. 

The survey makes it clear that the current medical student finance system is nowhere close to meeting our needs. In particular, it’s failing students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and worries about money are adding to the demands that come with studying medicine.  

This is certainly the case in Northern Ireland, where the current system is hard to navigate and inadequately supports many medical students. Take, for example, the Department for Health (DoH) bursary for students in their fifth and later years of study. This is income-assessed and – if awarded – has the knock-on effect of reducing other financial support such as the student maintenance loan.

Studying medicine is out of reach to many students unless they are willing to be saddled with astronomical debt

In addition, graduate medical students from Northern Ireland receive little to no financial support, despite bringing much-needed experience and skills gained from previous degrees and working in other professions. And let us not forget that medical students in Northern Ireland – who played a key support role throughout the pandemic response whilst on clinical placement – were not included in the £2,000 payment awarded by DoH to non-salaried students on clinical placements during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

All of this increases the pressure and worry about affording the basic costs of living on medical students at a time when they should be concentrating on their studies. It is putting studying medicine out of reach to many students unless they are willing to be saddled with astronomical levels of debt, which is unforgivable at a time when the Northern Ireland health service is struggling to recruit and retain doctors.

Over the coming session the BMA Northern Ireland medical students committee will be highlighting the effects of the cost of living crisis on medical students with stakeholders such as the DoH, local politicians and both medical schools. We want them to urgently review funding arrangements for medical students and provide them with the adequate support and peace of mind needed to train and study as doctors. 

Add your voice

To help us with this lobbying work, we want to hear your experiences of how the cost of living crisis is having an impact on you, your studies and clinical placements. The more details and case studies we have, the better we can lobby government and politicians on your behalf for change. Contact us at [email protected] or DM us directly on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

We have just published our updated finance guide for medical students, which you can access here. We are currently working with DoH, the medical schools and health trusts on a travel expense scheme for clinical placements. We will keep you updated on this.

Remember, if you are struggling the BMA is here to support you. We have free and confidential 24/7 counselling and peer support services open to all doctors and medical students (regardless of BMA membership), plus your partners and dependants.

Victoria Paice is a fourth year medical student at Queen’s University Belfast and chair of the BMA’s Northern Ireland medical students committee.