Medical students across the UK are feeling the financial heat

This year’s student finance survey lays bare a system that disadvantages the poorest and offers decreasing value for money for medical students, writes Aidan Murray

Location: UK
Published: Tuesday 23 August 2022

I hope everyone is enjoying their summer and coping with the heat. Here at the BMA’s MSC (medical students committee), we’ve been refocusing our attention on the financial struggles of medical students and the inadequate levels of funding to alleviate them. At least we finished looking through the results of our student finance survey before the temperatures rose! But unfortunately, the findings have proved to be concerning.

The student finance survey is conducted every three to five years and aims to take a snapshot of the financial situation of all currently enrolled medical students. The current survey was conducted during April and May 2022 and we received an amazing 1,119 responses from medical students across the UK.

With the cost-of-living crisis and inflation at a 40-year high, this year’s responses have been more critical to capture than ever. We found:

  • 44.3% of students reported being likely to run out of money before the end of the academic year
  • 61.8% of students reported having to cut down on essentials (food, heating, clothing) and almost 1 in 25 students reported accessing food banks
  • Of those students eligible for NHS bursary, respondents reported that on average the NHS bursary covered just 30% of their expenditures
  • Over half (53.6%) of students reported working during term time, with 73.1% of those citing a detrimental impact of working on their academics
  • 28.5% of students received no reimbursement for travel expenses to placement. England, Wales and Scotland are equally affected by this shortfall.

Some limitations to the survey included that students were self-selecting in responding to the survey and some nations, such as Wales, and white students were over-represented in the responses.

The distress caused by financial insecurity and being unable to afford living costs cannot be understated

Nevertheless, the results still paint a worrying picture. They suggest an educational system which increasingly disadvantages the poorest and offers decreasing value for money for students, the majority of whom need to work to make ends meet. With the rise of poor mental health among students, the distress caused by financial insecurity and being unable to afford living costs cannot be understated.

MSC co-chair Lara Akinnawonu presented a snapshot of the issues affecting medical students when giving oral evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee. She stressed:

  • admission to medicine should be based on ability – not wealth
  • medical student finance needs overall reform to support everyone better, but especially those who are most disadvantaged
  • the NHS bursary is not fit for purpose – we need greater means-tested and non-means-tested funding to cover the current financial shortfall. The NHS bursary needs to make its application process more streamlined; it should no longer consider parental income and should make it easier to demonstrate financial independence
  • travel reimbursement processes from universities and/or NHS trusts need to be standardised, made timelier and reflect the rising cost of fuel.

MSC has also supplied our survey data in follow-up written evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee to further inform its inquiry.

We have all seen how invaluable the NHS is for our society. Over the past two years it was our doctors, nurses and AHPs (allied health professionals) who protected our health and saw us through the pandemic. Now we must set our sights on the future of the NHS. The NHS is facing an unprecedented recruitment and retention crisis and it is imperative that, for the future of our nations’ health, medicine is an accessible, attractive and worthwhile profession to study.

Thank you to everyone who responded to the survey; the evidence has been invaluable in advocating for our case for better funding for medical students. We will continue to highlight the financial difficulties that many of us face daily, and campaign for better conditions to protect our members and provide a sustainable future for our healthcare system.

Aidan Murray is deputy chair of finance on the BMA medical students committee