Medical school applications up by a fifth for 2021

Applications for medical school places at UK universities are up by a fifth compared to last year, marking a second record-breaking year in a row that looks set to drive up competition for limited places.

Medical students: applications increased (Photo: Chee Gin Tan/Getty Images)
Medical students: applications increased (Photo: Chee Gin Tan/Getty Images)

A briefing published by the Medical Schools Council (MSC) showed that applications to UK medical schools rose from, 23,720 in 2020 to 28,690 for 2021 - marking an increase of 21%. The rise in applications is far greater than in previous years, rising by 8% last year and in 2019.

There were 24,220 new applications and 4,470 reapplications for medical school places this year. The MSC said that the percentage of reapplicants was ‘broadly consistent’ with figures from previous years, at 15.6%.

However, it has warned that rising numbers of applications means that there will be even greater competition for places in 2021, with the number of available spaces in UK schools remaining at around 9,500.

Medical school

The rise in applications comes just 10 days after RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall called for half of all medical school graduates to come into general practice in future - up from just over a quarter currently - to help reverse the decline in GP numbers.

The number of places available to study medicine is regulated by the different UK governments and strictly controlled through intake targets. Last year Matt Hancock decided to lift the cap - set at approximately 7,500 places in England - following disruption to exams caused by the pandemic.

A-level grades awarded to students last year were based on teacher assessments, meaning more candidates met the grades required to enter medical school than usual.

Evidence cited by the MSC shows that a comparison of teacher predictions and exam results in previous years showed '44.7% overpredicted, 6.5% underpredicted and 48.8% accurate at the level of individual A-level subjects'.

With A-level results set to be determined by teacher assessments again this year, the council has predicted increased competition for medical school places - and explained how this would look for students.

Training expenses

It said: ‘The selection criteria used by universities may be stricter this year. This may comprise higher scores required for aptitude tests and/or higher grades expected for secondary qualifications and/or other criteria (e.g. interview performance).

‘Since interviews, which are used by all UK medical schools, are resource intensive, it is likely that a smaller proportion of applicants will be offered interviews this year as well, even if the same absolute number of interviews are conducted.’

Medical school places are normally capped because the costs of training a doctor outstrip even the significant fees medical students pay over the course of their time in university. Training a GP has been estimated to cost the state up to £250,000.

The MSC has previously warned that only a 'modest increase in numbers' could be absorbed by medical schools due to cost and capacity.

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