Final year medical students ‘struggle to afford food’ on NHS bursary ‘no longer fit for purpose’

Final year medical students have been left struggling to afford food while living on an NHS bursary which has been described as “no longer fit for purpose”.

Campaigners have called on the government to increase the maintenance loan given to medical students as some final year medics are turning to food banks while studying, when their funding drops by around £4,000 a year.

Newcastle University fourth year medical student, Eilidh Garrett started the social media hashtag #LiveableNHSBursary after she was hospitalised due to the overwhelming anxiety of her hardship, which has financial left her in spiraling debt after maxing out student overdrafts and relying on credit cards to pay for food.

“It’s really quite overwhelming, I’ve had to study for my final knowledge-based exams this year so trying to keep up with that as well as trying to earn money as well as not burn out has been really emotionally difficult. I’m struggling at the moment putting my food on credit cards, I’ve maxed all my student overdrafts , I can’t do that anymore,” she told The Independent.

In the initial years of study, medical students are entitled to up to £12,382 in London (£9,706 outside of London) for a maintenance loan to cover living costs.

But in their final years, that drops to £8,625 for students in London (£6,450 outside the capital). That includes the NHS bursary which provides a non-means-tested grant of £1,000 and a means-tested grant of up to £3,191 in London (£2,643 outside the capital) for the first 30 weeks of the year and a significantly reduced maintenance loan .

Eilidh said she has been forced to take up a part-time job at a car dealership, as her £380-a-month maximum NHS bursary still leaves her struggling to afford the basics after rent, bills and petrol.

She fears the balancing act to finance through medical school will negatively impact her final grade and herself the chances of landing a desired job.

“If you’re expected to be on placement then studying the rest of the time but you don’t get enough money to live off – how do you live? We don’t. It doesn’t make sense, it’s horrible,” Eilidh said.

“As much as we’re trying to get diversity into medicine we’re doing nothing to maintain the success of the diversity once they are into medical school.

Medical students work up to 40 hours a week of unpaid placement during their final years of study

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“Ultimately people will just drop out and new doctors will be burnt out. Medicine will just continue to be a degree for the privileged,” she argued.

Final year medical student Alex Bald, 24, has been forced to work part-time jobs throughout his time at university to get through his studies.

He now fears the negative impact on his mental health as he attempts to balance studying with placements and work commitments.

“I think the main difficulty is your student finance loan drops massively from when the bursary comes into effect… My loan for my first few years was £5,000-6,000 now it’s around £3,000.

“I’ve got a £2,000-3,000 gap and the expectation is your parents will pick up the slack or you find the money yourself,” Alex said speaking in his capacity as Doctors Association UK member.

Similar to Eilidh, Alex has been forced to take on part-time jobs as a clinical support worker and tutor to survive his final year.

Alex Bald is the first person in his family to go to university

(Supplied)

“It’s all really difficult when your peers who come from really well off backgrounds and don’t have to use their free time to work all the time… You just feel a bit isolated from your peers as they don’t necessarily understand where you’re coming from,” he told The Independent.

“I go to placement 9am-3pm then start work at 4pm and work till midnight. Where am I meant to fit in time to study in that?”

Alex said he’s managed to perform well in his exams but said it came at the cost to his mental health and social life, missing countless family events. Additionally, he lamented that his financial hardship created a glass ceiling for his achievements at medical school.

Campaign group Liveable NHS Bursary has called on the government to provide immediate access to a full Student Finance England maintenance loan for medical students as well as access to the NHS Learning Support Fund, which is accessed by other healthcare professional students, replacing the standard medical student NHS bursary enabling students to access a £5,000 non-means tested grant.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has also backed the campaign.

Khadija Meghrawi, co-chair of the BMA medical students committee, said it was “deeply worrying” that students were facing financial hardship and called the situation a “failure from the government to provide sufficient funding”.

“For years, we’ve heard instances of our fellow students using food banks, overburdened by debt and exhausted by working long hours alongside for a full-time medicine degree studying. No student should have to choose between their degree and making ends meet,” Ms Meghrawi said.

“The funding provided by the NHS bursary is unacceptably low and there must be a review of current funding mechanisms. Those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds cannot rely on generous friends or family, and must instead sacrifice their education and health to work long hours.”

A department of health and social care spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting medical students in England across all years of study and we are keeping funding arrangements for all healthcare students under review.”

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