Fees may be waived for medical students

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Some medical students are expected be given bursaries to help them pay pounds 1,000-a-year tuition fees after intervention by Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, over the Dearing report.

The Health Secretary is to hold talks with the Treasury and the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, over the bursaries, after protests by doctors and dentists' leaders that the fees could deepen a shortage of medical graduates. He has privately told officials that some medical students should be given bursaries after the third year of their course. The details have to be agreed with the Treasury in time for an education fees white paper in the Autumn, but it is likely the bursaries will be limited to specialist areas where there are clear shortages.

Mr Blunkett announced on 24 July that students' maintenance grants would be converted into loans repayable when the students began earning. That would leave most students with a debt of over pounds 10,000 after a three-year course. There would also be tuition fees of pounds 1,000 a year for those whose parents earn pounds 35,000. Medical students who have courses lasting five or six years would face debts ranging up to an estimated pounds 20,000.

In spite of criticism, Mr Blunkett managed to win widespread support for the controversial plan from universities.

But the Government has so far failed to respond to a key recommendation in the Dearing report it should pick up the bill for students with courses lasting more than three years, including medical and teaching students.

Mr Dobson has told Cabinet colleagues the NHS is the biggest employer of graduates, but it is not a high payer, and could face increasing difficulties recruiting unless a compromise is agreed over the tuition fees for medical students.

The British Dental Association has written to all MPs, urging them to support bursaries for dental students and is due to meet Baroness Blackstone, the education minister in the Lords. The BMA is also campaigning and yesterday the Liberal Democrats backed the demands for bursaries.

Figures showing a "crisis" in medical staffing were published by Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on health, and Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat MP and former hospital doctor who is still paying off a student loan.

Mr Hughes said there was a need for a new medical school, providing an extra 150 student places a year. Surveys showed the numbers of doctors were not matching the increased workload, and the ratio of juniors to consultants had fallen. "It would be the worst possible move for the Dearing report to be implemented in way that makes medical students fear they will be worse off. The Dearing report is wrong. A contribution to tuition fees would be a disincentive," he said. Hospitals were hiring doctors from the Commonwealth to meet the doctor shortages.

Less than half of the senior house officers in East Anglia this year were British.