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Shortened medical degrees: a threat to quality?

  • 11 September 2023
  • By James Tooley and Jo Harris

In order to overcome the shortage of medical practitioners, Rishi Sunak has announced support for moving from standard five or six-year medical degrees to a compressed four-year degree programme. The duration of other health science courses, like nursing, could also be shortened.

Many fret over whether this is possible without diluting quality. We don’t have to look far to dispel such worries. Since its inception, the independent University of Buckingham has championed accelerated two-year undergraduate degrees, and applied the same principles to accelerated medical degrees too.

Back in the early 1970s, the founders of the University College at Buckingham were perplexed as to why universities closed their doors to undergraduates from June to September. Not only was this a terrible waste of resources, it didn’t seem a pressing concern of undergraduates to go home to avoid the plague, prevalent in Oxford and Cambridge during Medieval Times, or to bring in the family harvest either, the historical reasons for the long summer hols.

The founders put an additional term where other universities have only holiday. With the additional teaching time, undergraduates could complete their degrees in only two years, entering the labour market a year earlier and with a year’s less living expense to boot.

The regulators didn’t like this pesky new provider’s ideas at all. The Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) ruled that degrees were three years, not two. No amount of evidence that the same content could be covered in two years by eliminating long summer holidays would persuade them.

The pioneering university college went ahead anyway. It called its qualification a “Licence” rather than a degree, and persuaded important end-users, such as the Advisory Committee on Legal Education, that the Licence was equivalent to a normal university degree. It worked.

The first students were admitted in 1976. Margaret Thatcher, then Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, gave a stirring matriculation speech, extolling the virtues of freedom: “independence … is not a gift. It is not something that governments confer, but something that a free people enjoys – and uses”. 

Seven years later – precisely 40 years ago this year – the University gained its Royal Charter, the only private university to have one, and so was able to award degrees without the state bureaucracy getting in the way.

When the University opened its Medical School, it used the same model. Starting the academic year in January and getting rid of long summer holidays, students cover exactly the same material in four and a half years as they do elsewhere in five or six. The University is actively working to bring this down to four years whilst still satisfying all the General Medical Council (GMC) outcomes.

Unlike the regulator of yesteryear, the GMC raised no objections and the University was awarded full accreditation in May 2019. The shorter course is popular with home and overseas students, and five cohorts have now graduated, almost all of whom have gone on to the requisite two-year foundation jobs in the UK; many have won national or regional awards.

Significantly, other health courses have also been created on the same model, including two-year podiatry and biomedical sciences degrees, with a two-year nursing degree on the cards.

The University of Buckingham’s model is oven-ready for adoption. Indeed, there are other interesting templates to learn from. Mention of Buckingham’s experience with a Licence reminds us of what happened in Singapore and other British colonies early last century. The same problem needed addressing, how to train urgently required doctors. What became the Faculty of Medicine, University of Singapore, created the Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery, recognised by the GMC back in 1916. One year in the classroom, and two years in hospital placements led to cohort after cohort of suitably educated doctors.

With GMC approval, the University of Buckingham could draw on experience with its own Licentiate to design something similar to meet the health needs of 21st-century Britain. As a university that has a proud tradition of disruptive innovation, we’re itching to get started.

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  1. Albert Wright says:

    A very encouraging read.

    It seems that there is a better and quicker way for Universities to provide the country with more graduates.

    The Buckingham Brand has shown a remarkable improvement in productivity and is an example for other Universities to follow.

    What is not to like? Wider adoption of their model could transform the economics of Higher Education by delivering more for less.

  2. zahid says:

    A thought-provoking perspective! Balancing the need for efficient training with maintaining high standards in the medical field is crucial. Thank you for raising this important discussion.

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