HL Deb 19 July 2001 vol 626 cc1583-5

3.30 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwyasked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to reverse the decline in the number of students applying for places in United Kingdom medical schools.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, medicine and dentistry remain attractive careers and there continue to be many applications for places at medical and dental schools from those with the highest qualifications. Furthermore, the increase in the number of medical school places in England and the creation of four new medical schools, in East Anglia, the South West. Sussex and Yorkshire and Humberside, announced over the past two years, will all serve to increase the opportunities to study medicine.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, is she aware of the growing concern at the decline in the number of applicants for medical student places from 12,076 in 1997 to some 10,226 last year. Are the Government confident that they can achieve the higher targets they have set for medical recruitment with students of the highest quality, as required by the NHS, especially in view of the wide-ranging recommendations of the Bristol Royal Infirmary inquiry report?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole Government in saying that we have great confidence that we can achieve that. The number of medical school places that will be available by the 2005–06 will be 40 per cent higher than the number last year. We are confident that we shall be able to take measures to ensure that students fill those places.

It is worth making a distinction between the number of applications and the number of applicants. Applications have declined because students are no longer applying to five institutions, but to four; therefore, extrapolating by four, not five, gives a decrease. As I understand it, home graduate applications to study medicine rose by 20 per cent between 1998 and 2000.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, even if the Government succeed in making sure that there are sufficient applicants to medical schools, there remains a major problem of recruitment and retention in our medical schools. The London medical schools have made many teaching staff redundant, and a recent survey demonstrated vacancies in some 79 professorial appointments and some 322 lectureships. How do the Government square those findings with their plans to increase the number of places by 2,000 in 2005? Is this not partly the product of an overemphasis on research and the financial incentives for research as compared with the financial incentives for medical teaching?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it is worth pointing out that the new medical schools have guaranteed the appropriate level of staffing. This is a broader question in terms of seeking to ensure that we have the right numbers of teaching staff in place. Perhaps I may write to the noble Lord on the subject.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is important to attract a much wider cohort of students into the medical profession and to seek imaginative responses. I think particularly of the creative partnerships between the Universities of Leicester and Warwick, and Manchester and Keele. I declare an interest as the chief executive of Universities UK. Is not one of the most important ways of doing that to widen applications in terms of graduate entry, to include not only science but also non-science graduates? This is a most imaginative way forward and it could result in a considerable increase in new entrants.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, we are making it possible for graduates to enter university medical schools in different ways on the back of having acquired a previous degree and being able to transfer across disciplines. In terms of attempting to bring more people into medical schools, in September we are launching the Science Year initiative, aimed at 10 to 15 year-olds. That will be important in terms of showing them that there is a career to be had within the medical profession.

Lord Renton

My Lords, are the figures given by the Minister for England and Wales only; or do they apply to the United Kingdom as a whole? If they apply only to England and Wales, will the Minister bear in mind that Scotland has produced many great doctors for many years, and still has a great potential for doing so?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, having spent part of my career in the health service, I firmly agree with the noble Lord about the greatness of many of our Scottish doctors. But I also call attention to doctors from all over the world who provide an excellent service to the health service.

I can provide the medical school intake figures for the different countries of the UK. The total is 5,595 for the intake for 2000–01, from which Scotland will provide 920. For 2005–06, the UK total will be 7,248, of which Scotland's contribution is predicted to be 884.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is extremely important that better education should be given in mathematics and the sciences—otherwise, it will be extremely difficult to produce the people who can become good doctors? Urgent action is needed, with so many children coming out of school badly taught in mathematics and often having had far too little training in science.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it is the value that we place on these subjects that has led us to the targets that we have for key stage 1 and key stage 2 for our children and the work that is currently under way on key stage 3. I could not agree more with the noble Baroness. It is important that we recognise the role of science—hence we are launching Science Year, for which I am delighted to be responsible—and also the need to ensure that mathematics is a key subject that is taught right through the school curriculum.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are doctors wanting to train to become surgeons and that the rotas are blocked? Will she see that the rotas are unblocked, as we need more surgeons?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I understand that there is a review of medical workforce planning. I am sure that the reports will come to this House.