Medicine has long been the near-exclusive preserve of higher education, but the QAA’s Julie Mizon has big plans to change that

In a speech to the Conservative Party conference in 2016, the health secretary Jeremy Hunt set a target for training up to 1,500 more new doctors each year from 2018 – 25 per cent more than previous years. It would be, he said, “the biggest annual increase in medical student training in the history of the NHS”, and would make the UK ‘self-sufficient’, no longer reliant on recruiting doctors from overseas to staff the NHS. No small feat.

Was this target met? Not quite, but there are 500 extra places available for students who’ve made their UCAS applications for entry this autumn. A further 1,000 places are anticipated next September. In spite of headlines about pay and conditions for doctors working in the NHS today, medicine remains an attractive career path.

The government wants to allocate these extra places to medical schools that have a commitment to taking candidates from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The British Medical Association is also working hard to widen participation.

A perception clings to medicine, that it is for more advantaged students

It’s a worthy aim, but a perception clings to medicine, that it is for more advantaged students. With able 18-year-olds with a clutch of top A-levels queuing to get into medical schools, what role does the access to HE diploma have to play?

Access to HE changes lives by preparing adults with few or no qualifications for higher education. Students with access to HE diplomas are more likely to come from backgrounds or postcodes where higher education participation is lower. Most of them seek to study at their local FE college.

It’s also attractive to students on lower incomes who might be wary of taking on more debt just even to think of applying for university. Access to HE is the only level three qualification where, on successful completion of a higher education qualification, the balance of any advance learner loan taken out to pay tuition fees is written off by the Student Loans Company.

For some years now, the most popular access to HE subjects have been nursing and other health professions. Typically, the qualification is taken by those who did not achieve highly at school and decide later in life that they want to work in a graduate-entry profession.

Access to nursing is characteristic of this pattern, and adult enrolments skyrocketed after a degree became the only route of entry available to aspiring nurses.

Medicine is a different story. In 2016-17, 53 per cent of access enrolments were in a healthcare subject, but of these only two per cent of total enrolments were preparing students for a medical degree.

We want to change that. In 2013, QAA introduced a new specification for the diploma that it has regulated for over two decades, securing its place in the UCAS tariff system – an important step in increasing its credibility for entry to more competitive courses.

We are now liaising closely with the Medical Schools Council to develop a descriptor for a new access to HE diploma. We’re proposing that, subject to acceptance by UK medical schools, this diploma in medicine will have common elements nationwide, to facilitate both student progression and greater standardisation of outcomes.

This will help more students like Helen Price, who left school at 15 with no qualifications to care for her grandmother. After her grandmother’s death, and by then a mother of two, Helen took diploma at her local college and was accepted onto a medical degree by Keele University. Fast forward a decade, and she’s now a fully qualified doctor in a busy emergency department.

More access learners should be able to follow in Helen’s footsteps. They should in future have the confidence to apply for medicine knowing that, in spite of fierce competition for places, their skills and abilities will not only be considered on a par with A-levels, but be valued and actively sought after by admissions staff.

Julie Mizon is Access Manager at the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education