Universities in England have been given permission to grant more places on medicine and dentistry courses for the coming academic year, amid expectations that more students than ever will get top A-level results.
Applications for the highly sought-after courses have increased by 20 per cent compared to last year, meaning numbers of would-be undergraduates far outstrip the places on offer under a cap system.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson has made funding available for a total 9,000 places in the academic year 2021/22, up from 8,340 in 2019 and around 8,750 last year, when the cap was lifted in response to chaos in the school exam system resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision to scrap formal A-level exams for a second successive year is expected to continue the grade inflation seen in 2020, with qualifications awarded next week on the basis of teacher assessment and school tests.
The Department for Education said that for the coming academic year, universities that can accommodate an increase to medical and dentistry places for students that have met the grades and hold a firm offer at a university with pressure on places will be supported to do so.
Labour accused ministers of being in “panic mode” with the announcement, just days before results day.
The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said: “Young people getting their results have worked incredibly hard in unprecedented circumstances.
“The prime minister has let them down with a second year of chaos and confusion, he must guarantee every student getting their results will be able to progress with their education or employment.
“If the government can create these additional healthcare places at just days’ notice, it begs serious questions about why they have not acted sooner to tackle the ongoing workforce crisis in the NHS.”
Mr Williamson said: “Students have worked incredibly hard over the past 18 months and we have continued to put their best interests first to ensure they can progress on to the next stage of their education training or career.
“Throughout this pandemic our NHS heroes have been at the forefront of the response and their resilience, dedication and perseverance has clearly inspired the next generation.
“Medicine and dentistry have always been popular courses and we have seen significant demand for places this year alongside other subjects like engineering and nursing. We want to match student enthusiasm and ensure as many as possible can train this year to be the doctors and healthcare professionals of the future.”
Health secretary Sajid Javid said: “As we look beyond the pandemic, it’s incredibly important we safeguard the future of our NHS by ensuring there is a pipeline of high-quality staff to bolster the workforce in the years ahead.
“Working closely with universities, we’re helping more students who meet the bar to get a place this year to study medicine or dentistry and join these fantastic professions.”
The chief executive of university application service UCAS, Clare Marchant, welcomed the increase in places.
“It gives more students the opportunity to study their first choice of course next year,” said Ms Marchant.
“Students applying for medicine and dentistry have been ambitious with their choices, and continued to stretch themselves during the pandemic to prepare for challenging study and rewarding future careers.”
In anticipation of a greater interest in places this year on popular courses that are key to the country’s recovery from the pandemic, up to £10 million in additional grant funding will be provided to universities through the Office for Students to help them to increase capacity in medical, dentistry, nursing, STEM and other high-cost subjects, said DFE.
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