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Retreat over cut in medical student intake: Government is told plan would threaten research

THE GOVERNMENT is preparing to retreat over a planned cut in the annual intake of medical students to London of nearly 10 per cent after leading academics claimed it would jeopardise national centres of research excellence.

A reduction of 150 in the number of medical students admitted to University of London institutions each year was a key recommendation of the Government-appointed inquiry led by Sir Bernard Tomlinson into the capital's health services.

In their response last month, ministers referred the proposed cut and the four mergers of eight medical schools in London, that the inquiry had also recommended, to the Higher Education Funding Council for England for detailed consideration.

The council's medical committee is since understood to have concluded that the proposed reduction in numbers, and the consequent loss of pounds 18m in fees over three years, cannot be sustained without risking the break-up of leading medical research teams.

Ministers have also been warned that keeping top research teams, and the specialists who lead them, in the capital is essential if London is to maintain its international reputation for medicine, and the estimated pounds 1bn a year in invisible earnings generated by private overseas patients. Last year, London medical institutions received eight of the 14 top grades for research excellence awarded across the country by the Universities Funding Council. The research income per member of staff in London medical schools averages pounds 100,000 a year compared with pounds 70,000 outside London.

Sir Bernard Tomlinson proposed the cut in students two months before the Government's advisers on doctor numbers urged an increase in the national intake of medical students.

The Medical Manpower Standing Advisory Committee, chaired by Sir Colin Campbell, vice-chancellor of Nottingham University, said the intake must rise by 240 to 4,470 'as soon as practicable' in order to ensure an adequate supply of doctors over the next 20 years.

The University of London has reported a rise in the number of applications for places at its medical school. Moreover, it estimates that cuts in student numbers could threaten the viability of specialist hospitals such as the Hammersmith and the Royal Marsden, and their associated postgraduate institutes. These hospitals are funded directly by the Department of Health at present. But from April next year, they join the NHS internal market, dependent on contracts from health purchasers for their survival.

Professor Sir Colin Dollery, pro-vice chancellor for medicine at the University of London, believes the Government has yet to understand the potentially damaging consequences of their entry to the market for Britain's medical research base.

'Through their decisions, purchasers will have power of life or death over the research facilities in London's special health authority hospitals,' he told the Independent. 'Many of these are national assets. If departments close, the specialists leading them will not go elsewhere in the UK, they will go abroad.'