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UK medical schools fear for quality of student education as funding axe falls

BMJ 2020; 370 doi: (Published 23 September 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;370:m3656

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  1. Stephen Armstrong, freelance journalist
  1. London
  1. stephen.armstrong{at}

As nearly a million university students start term this month, UK medical schools face a perfect storm of financial problems that could dramatically affect student education, reports Stephen Armstrong

“The sense of a funding crisis in higher education is very significant,” warns Malcolm Reed, dean of Brighton and Sussex Medical School and co-chair of the Medical Schools Council. “Most universities have started to feel a squeeze, and many will have run voluntary severance schemes—there’s an unpredictable uptake, and they can’t control who goes. They’re not yet going to be compulsory, but it would not be a surprise if that happens.”

Reed is one of many people in higher education battling the realities of a severe funding squeeze due to reduced research grants, a drastic drop in international students, and lockdown related losses of revenue from student accommodation and conference operations.

The situation is so dire that letters seen by The BMJ show medical schools asking staff to consider voluntary pay reductions, early retirement, redundancy, or changes to clinical academic contracts to cope with budget constraints. These moves are causing significant concern about the effects on student education.

In July, the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that the covid-19 crisis posed a considerable financial threat to universities. Although the size of the sector’s losses is uncertain, the institute expects the figure to be around £11bn (€12bn; $14.2bn), which is more than 25% of the sector’s annual income.1 This means that less prestigious and financially weaker institutions face insolvency, the institute says, with some 13 unnamed universities needing a government bailout to survive.

Medical schools should be in a strong position to weather this storm because their funding comes from three pillars: student fees, the government/NHS, and research grants. Recent figures from the Medical Schools Council show that clinical academic posts …

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