Damaging discrimination at the core of SNP medical student policy

Damaging discrimination at the core of SNP medical student policy

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Wednesday 3, July, 2019

ON MONDAY, at the start of the first week of the Holyrood recess when the Scottish Government hoped no-one would be looking, we learnt that medical students who come from the rest of the UK and who want to apply for undergraduate courses at Scottish universities will find their chances greatly diminished. Indeed, some rUK students will be pushed out altogether.

This is because the Scottish Government has decreed that our medical schools must admit 100 extra Scottish domiciled medical undergraduates to help address the appalling shortage of GPs in Scotland. But, as there are to be no additional places overall, the policy means that 100 fewer medics will be admitted from elsewhere in the UK. 

This is just so wrong. 

Our Scottish medical schools are justifiably proud of their long-established records of clinical and academic excellence. Over centuries, they have produced some of the finest doctors and medical experts in the world and they have often led the way when it comes to pioneering research. They achieved this because they thrived on their autonomy to select the brightest and the best, from wherever they came.

For several years now, under the SNP’s “free” higher education policy, Scottish medical schools, just like all their other Scottish university counterparts, have had to comply with Scottish Government regulations about the number of “capped” places for domiciled Scots. This policy has been both badly flawed and discriminatory all along but now it has just got a whole lot worse.

The Scottish Government always defends itself on university policy by pointing to the increase in the number of domiciled Scots being successful in their applications to Scottish institutions. No-one doubts that this is a welcome fact but it is disingenuous in the extreme to claim that is the whole story. This is because there is also a growing pool of extremely well qualified Scots domiciled students who are finding it almost impossible to gain a place at a Scottish university. As a result of widening access programmes which dictate the number of students which must be admitted to university from disadvantaged backgrounds, plus the capped policy, we know (and so too, do Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney from all the irate letters they have received) that there are some of the best qualified young people in Scotland getting squeezed out of Scottish universities at a time when we are desperate for more doctors, STEM graduates, radiographers etc.

Perhaps it is these pressures that have made the Scottish Government change its policy. But surely the answer is not to replace the old, deeply flawed policy with one that is even more discriminatory. And the Scottish Government even admits it:

“It is expected that those of Scottish national origin will generally benefit from the policy proposal, but English, Northern Irish and Welsh nationals are likely to be indirectly disadvantaged”. It goes on, “our rationale for this policy however, is the positive gain in terms of workforce which justifies any indirect disadvantage.” 

What an extraordinary admission. 

Not only is this one of the most discriminatory policies Scotland has ever seen, but it is also an admission of complete failure on the part of the Scottish Government. Do ministers not recognise that, as well as the capped places policy, it is their mishandling of workforce planning which has caused the severe shortage of GPS across the country? The Royal College of General Practitioners claims there will be a shortfall of 856 full-time equivalent GPs in two years’ time.

Little wonder then that the medical schools and the British Medical Association have raised significant concerns about this new policy. They rightly point to the ever-increasing demands on our health service as a result of an ageing population and the need to continue recruiting skilled doctors from all parts of the UK and abroad and they point to some of the likely financial implications if fewer fee-paying students come to Scotland.

In Scotland, like most other countries in the world, there is an increasing proportion of university income that comes from private means. Unlike in most other countries where this has been accompanied by greater autonomy for higher education institutions, the Scottish Government has chosen to be more and more interventionist in higher education policy; interfering with governance, issuing directives about “capped” places, dictating percentages for SIMD entry and now telling rUK medical students that they won’t get in because preference will be given to Scottish nationals. It is nothing short of outrageous.

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