‘Devastating’ and ‘Irresponsible’: Top bodies slam MQ Uni’s private medical school plans

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Words || Tess Connery

Macquarie University’s plans to open a private medical school for full fee-paying students, announced yesterday, have come under fire from a number of top medical organisations including the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Medical Students Association.

Macquarie’s Vice-Chancellor, Bruce Dowton, said that the school would be modelled on US academic health centres such as John Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

The University has 60 students enrolled to begin their studies in 2018. The four year medical degree, which launched on August 7th, will involve five months of clinical training in the Hyderabad Apollo Hospital, India, in the third year for clinical experience.  This will be the only medical degree in Australia to include a mandatory period of international study. By offering the medical degree as a private full-fee paying degree, Macquarie will also be the only public University that doesn’t receive government funding for medicine.

“It encourages this unequal representation of different backgrounds in medical school, and makes it easier to get into medical school if you’re from a higher socio-economic background.”

The most prominent concern is that the construction of private medical schools will exacerbate the shortage of medical internships, which is already a major concern for many people studying within the field.

After completing an undergraduate medical degree, graduates will have to undertake a year’s worth of work experience as either an intern or a Postgraduate Year 1 Doctor. This year of work experience is a prerequisite to receiving a general medical registration, and you cannot become a doctor without it. As a result, the limited internship places are highly competitive.

One particularly damaging side effect of this competition for placements is that it may push international students out of the industry. By adding private medical students into the pool of domestic students that the government has already promised to find places for, international students will find themselves with even less available placements.

Grapeshot spoke to Ashna Basu, Student Councillor for the Australian Medical Association and President of the New South Wales Medical Students’ Council.

“We don’t need more medical students. It’s quite irresponsible in a workforce that’s already burdened with too many students and too many graduates to put more people into that system, because they will require more internship spots that we already really don’t have.”

The move will also place pressure on students from a lower socio-economic background. By attending a private medical school, students will be paying in excess of $250,000 for their degree, without any HECS or HELP assistance.

For 2018 enrolments, domestic students will be charged $64,000 per year, and $70,000 per year for international students. In total, this degree will cost domestic students $256,000, and $280,000 for international students. This makes Macquarie’s medical degree the second most expensive medical degree in the country, seconded only by Bond University’s $361,872 course fee.

This is a price that is not feasible for most would-be students. 

Rob Thomas, President of the Australian Medical Students’ Association, spoke to Grapeshot:

“With any proposed full fee spots, we think that’s really unbalanced and unfair in terms of admission to medical school – and particularly, it disenfranchises and encourages this unequal representation of different backgrounds in medical school, and makes it easier essentially to get into medical school if you’re from a higher socio-economic background, which we really don’t agree with,” said Thomas.

“It’s pretty devastating and it’s really irresponsible…”

“If medical student numbers were to increase substantially, a lot of people would be paying a lot to go to medical school, and we’re talking in excess of two hundred to three hundred thousand dollars … Thinking that people could have these degrees and then essentially be told at the other end that they won’t be getting a job and that they won’t be contributing to the Australian health system, it’s pretty devastating and it’s really irresponsible of some of the universities,” he continued.

The medical workforce in Australia has historically tended to be made up of people from higher socio-economic backgrounds. There is a high cost involved in travelling to interviews and sitting prerequisite tests such as the UMAT (Undergraduate Medicine and Health Sciences Admission Test) or GAMSAT (Graduate Australian Medical School Admissions Test).

In 2008, the Australian Government banned universities from offering undergraduate full-fee places to domestic students enrolling in public universities.

Currently, the only universities exempt from this ban are the University of Melbourne, the University of Notre Dame Australia and Flinders University, who are each permitted to offer a capped number of full-fee places.

Postgraduate positions, however, are not covered by this ban. This has created a loophole, and increasingly, universities Australia-wide are replacing their undergraduate medical courses with Masters-level medical degrees.

Grapeshot originally contacted the university for comment on July 28th. A University spokesperson replied simply that: “Macquarie University does not currently offer a medical degree”.

While this was true at the time, the Macquarie medical degree was announced yesterday. Grapeshot re-approached the University for comment, and was sent through a media release in place of an updated statement.