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Third Level Education

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 19 May 2022

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Ceisteanna (98)

Gary Gannon

Ceist:

98. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to support graduate entry medicine students following the decision by a bank (details supplied) to discontinue the only specialist loan available to support these students. [25282/22]

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Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Further and Higher Education)

I ask the Minister how he intends to support graduate entry medicine students following the withdrawal of the products by the bank that previously provided loans to support students taking the course.

I am very aware of the challenge caused by the withdrawal of the existing loan products designed for students wishing to study medicine through the graduate entry route. Indeed, in recent days I met students in UCD to discuss the issue. Decisions regarding which loan products to offer are, of course, a commercial matter for the banks concerned. That is a statement of fact. However, I do understand from students who have written to me, those I have met in UCD and engagement with the relevant higher education institutions that the availability of such loans has been important in supporting people, particularly mature students, to study medicine. With that in mind I took the decision to write the institution in question. While noting that it is a commercial decision, I have highlighted the critical public policy considerations relevant to this loan product. I think it is particularly unfortunate that there was such an immediate cliff edge. I understand that it is entirely a commercial matter. However, it would have been extremely useful if, in making that commercial decision, a lead-in time had been provided, perhaps even a lead-in period of 12 months. A student thinking of pursuing graduate entry medicine in March, April or May would be presuming that the product would be in place. The fact that the product was pulled so quickly, and with immediate effect for the September 2022 entrants, is problematic. It has created a cliff edge that is unfortunate. While recognising that it is a commercial decision, I ask the bank to reconsider. At the very least, I ask the bank to consider if the cliff edge could be removed and a bit of time provided. I want a lead-in period provided in order that we can consider and put in place a range of policy and funding tools, from a Government point of view, to try to increase the supply of domestic medical graduates. I hope to be in a position to make an announcement to Government colleagues shortly on additional medicine places, as I referenced earlier. Looking forward, the recently published student grant scheme review identifies public policy questions regarding greater student grant support for graduate entry routes. There are significant policy, legislative and funding considerations, as well as wider implications, if the current treatment of graduate entry medicine is amended. However, we now have this review and all elements will be subject to consideration and prioritisation, alongside other cost of education measures, through the budget process. This will include consideration of the potential for additional supports for students of graduate entry medicine. We are looking at what we can do. I encourage the bank to provide more time and not create this immediate cliff edge.

I thank the Minister for his response. In the Minister's previous engagement with Deputy Conway-Walsh, he mentioned the fact that he did not want to talk about barriers to education, because he wants everyone to believe that they can go to college. That is very relevant and important and I endorse that. However, there are certain courses that are simply not accessible to students, regardless of how hard they might try to access them. For example, 4% of the graduate entry medicine student cohort come from what would have been previously categorised as disadvantaged backgrounds. The student loan that was previously provided by the Bank of Ireland came to €60,000 over the course of five years. However, that required a parental guarantee of over €50,000. That potentially excluded people from one-parent families and those living in poverty, as one in six people do in this country. The decision made by the bank was a commercial one. However, the consequence was that certain courses in our State were simply the preserve of those who could afford them. I think the Minister agrees that this should not continue. I welcome the fact that the Minister is considering the matter and intends to make policy announcements on it, but there is an urgency to it. Perhaps the Minister can expand on his plans in his response.

Before the commercial decision of the bank was made, I had already had a number of very useful meetings with students of graduate entry medicine. They made points like those made by the Deputy. From my former role as Minister for Health, I think that diversity in professions, and in the medical profession, is a good thing. I also think that diverse routes of entry into medicine are good. There is an idea that everyone must start the course immediately after finishing school. However, it may be advantageous to actually have doctors who have studied something else, for example, science or occupational therapy, and go on to study medicine. There is a policy benefit from the health service's point of view as well. Being honest, I think that as a Department and a Government, we need to do more in supporting those who take the graduate entry medicine route. It is complex, because the course is a level 8 course. We need to ensure that there is no contagion or unintended policy consequences. We already provide some financial assistance towards the costs for students. There are options to do more. We are looking at whether we can do more in the context of the budget and the SUSI review. What I am saying, in the round, is that it would be very useful if the bank did not immediately withdraw this product, which has created a cliff edge that is causing a lot of stress and anxiety for students and potential students.

I fully agree on the Minister's point about diversity of access and routes to entry. That is important. There are different models that I hope the Minister will consider. Perhaps SUSI can be expanded up to graduate level not just for medicine, but also for other courses that have previously been the preserve of those who can afford them. There are examples from other jurisdictions, such as the Scottish St. Andrew's model, whereby students got access to study medicine through a bursary for accommodation and living costs. Those students made a commitment to work in NHS Scotland. Such a model could have huge benefits for us. If we are educating people from whatever level and age, bringing them into our own health service and getting a commitment that they will stay there if we invest in their education, that could have positive ramifications both for our health service and society in general. I hope the Government is being innovative in the type of policy solutions being considered. I appreciate why the Minister is encouraging the bank not to create a cliff edge. However, we must demonstrate urgency in bringing these measures forward, hopefully within the next budgetary cycle.

That is a fair comment. I will certainly take the Deputy's considerations on board. For the record, graduate entry medicine courses are not approved for funding under the student grant schemes because progression is a key tenet. Students accessing graduate entry medicine will, as a matter of course, hold a level 8 qualification prior to entry. Completion of a graduate-entry medicine degree also confers a further level 8 qualification. I accept, however, that there is a difference here because we want to train more people and to create more pathways. We are looking at how we can do more. There are options where we can increase the State’s contribution towards the fees or we can change the eligibility for SUSI grants, or we could look to doing a bit of both. We were progressing this matter before the bank’s decision, which has compounded what is an already very difficult issue. I recognise that this is a commercial matter, but it is not unreasonable to ask a bank that was supported by the Irish people through difficult times wait for a period and not to create an immediate cliff edge.

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