Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Debt Contagion: Opinion

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Debt Contagion: Opinion

Article excerpt

Kevin Fong worries as UK medical graduates catch an American disease.

It's a strange thing teaching a final-year undergraduate course. You become aware of the rising panic among the students who are about to exit the relative security of university life. I imagine it's a little bit like watching paratroopers standing in the open doorway of an aircraft in flight, shortly before you kick them out over enemy territory. They must wonder if their time in preparation has provided them with the right training and ammunition for what is to follow.

The medical students in the class always seem a little more relaxed. The road ahead for them might appear tough, but with pretty good guarantees of employment, it looks a lot less uncertain. I do wonder how long that will last, though: back-of-the-envelope calculations on the likely magnitude of their future debt are pretty eye-watering. For their five-year courses, the British Medical Association believes that individual debt could soon exceed Pounds 70,000. For medical schools in large metropolitan cities, I'd hazard a guess that it might be much worse than that.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not about to launch a welfare appeal for impoverished doctors. As a cohort of graduates they are in comparatively good shape. Unlike their compatriots launching themselves out into the thin air above the open labour market, medics can at least be sure that their parachutes are packed properly.

But if things continue to progress, medics' graduate debts are likely to be among the highest in the developed world, second only to those of private university graduates in the US. And the gap between us and our American buddies isn't that wide: median debt for medical graduates in the US sits at around $150,000 (Pounds 93,540). The BMA's projections for UK medical student debt already stand at a significant fraction of that and we are only just getting started in the tuition fee inflation game.

While I very much doubt this will end with the spectacle of medics living hand to mouth, I do wonder what the unintended consequences of these large debts might ultimately be. There must, for example, be a risk of harm to the widening participation agenda. In the UK, our pattern of admission to medical school has remained remarkably stable for decades despite our best efforts to attract a broader demographic to the profession.

The US has a similar problem. There, students from families in the lowest 20 per cent of the income bracket account for less than 3 per cent of the medical school intake, something that the American Medical Student Association believes has been exacerbated by tuition fee hikes. …

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