One of the biggest barriers to studying medicine for post-graduate students throughout the UK is funding, or lack of, particularly in Northern Ireland.
Medicine is an incredibly arduous degree, with a significant amount of time spent in the classroom while also travelling to and from placement. Unfortunately, this leaves students with a limited amount of time to undertake paid work during the academic year to supplement their income. These issues have been highlighted as a motion for debate at this year’s medical student conference.
The lack of financial support for post-graduates in Northern Ireland can be extremely challenging, especially for those with work/family commitments and the fact that they are ineligible for grants and funding available for undergraduate students.
In Northern Ireland the only option for funding offered to post-graduate medical students is taking out another student loan but this still falls short of covering basic living costs, especially in this current cost of living crisis.
This student loan may be in addition to other loans accrued from previously studied university degrees. One local bank has started to offer a loan for post-graduate medical students, but obviously this is more debt and is subject to interest.
Other countries in the UK provide post-graduate medical students an option to avail of NHS funding. While in Northern Ireland the only similar funding is a Department of Health bursary, which is only available for fifth-year medical students who are studying medicine as a first degree – meaning post-graduate students at Queen’s University and Ulster University are not eligible. This is unfair.
For example, Christian, who is one of our first years at UU, is a qualified Physician Associate and has come back to study medicine after self-funding his PA course while previously undertaking an undergraduate degree in London. His student debt is more than £40,000 and will likely not be completely re-paid within the 25-year window on the Government repayment scheme. On top of this, he worked three jobs in London to help with living costs.
Christian works fortnightly weekends in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, requiring him to travel and work on top of studying. Finding time for hobbies, socialising and rest on top of work and study commitments is incredibly difficult. This is an issue faced by many other students and is ultimately detrimental to our physical and mental wellbeing.
In addition to this, finances are significantly harder for international post-graduate students like me. Along with the requirement for international students to pay their tuition fees up front, the never-ending costs to relocate for clinical placement each year while finding a job to pay for weekly essentials can be challenging.
I do not have the luxury of parental support and rely solely on personal savings and the limited opportunity to work during my weekends and holidays.
Post-graduate students bring invaluable experience and skills gained from previous degrees and working in other professions and are vital to ensuring the diversity of the medical workforce.
The HSC in Northern Ireland needs to ensure that these post-graduate students continue to be recruited and retained. We hope existing policies can be reviewed to be more inclusive of post-graduate students in Northern Ireland in the interest of fairness and equal opportunity.
Roland Pescon is a second year student at Ulster University and a member of NIMSC