The drop of just under 3 per cent coincides with graduate applicants having to find £3,000 a year upfront to pay their fees. Graduates on traditional courses face having to find four years’ worth of fees and students on four-year fast-track courses have to pay the fees for their first year.
Mature students make up more than a quarter of students at many medical schools and last year, even on undergraduate courses, 11 per cent of students already had a first degree.
The preference of mature students for a career in general practice makes it ‘all the more important’ that heads of medical schools examine the reasons for this year’s fall in numbers, said Professor John Tooke, dean of Peninsula Medical School and chairman of the Council of Heads of Medical Schools.
‘We need to be alert to the need to support graduate entry. The financial burden there is less well catered for,’ he added.
The total number of applicants this year (18,994) was less than in any year since 2003. The fall brings to an end the seemingly inexorable rise in would-be doctors that has followed the government’s expansion of medical school places since the 1990s.
In 2003, graduate entrants accounted for more than half the expansion in medical students — a 30 per cent rise in applicants in that year was driven almost entirely by an expansion in the number of graduate applicants.
Almost four fifths of this year’s drop is accounted for by a slide in UK applicants. Numbers from the EU have risen slightly from 1,601 to 1,621, but there has been a sharp fall in other overseas applicants, reflecting the rule change that now bars them from staying for specialist training.
Professor Tooke said that last year’s scramble to beat top-up fees went part of the way to explaining this year’s slide.
The proportion of male to female applicants has now stabilised at 44 per cent men and 56 per cent women.
Peninsula Medical School has bucked the trend with the highest number of applicants for its 2007 undergraduate programme.
Meanwhile the BMA has warned that medical education and training in England are threatened by financial instability in the NHS, ‘with possible consequences for patient care’.
Dr Jo Hilborne, chairman of the BMA’s Junior Doctors Committee, said that ‘cutting education and training as a quick fix to the financial problems facing the NHS is both demoralising to staff and extremely risky’.