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Subject requirements for medicine: there’s more choice than students think

25.03.21

New data from UCAS show that students applying to study medicine have chosen to study a narrow range of A level subjects, despite significant expansion in the range of subjects accepted by medical schools for entry. Nearly all accepted applicants (94% in England, Wales & Northern Ireland) to medicine and dentistry courses hold A levels or equivalent in biology and chemistry, with 64% holding A levels in biology, chemistry and maths.

However, there are now at least 34 medicine courses where A level chemistry is not required and at least 46 medicine courses where A level biology is not required in the UK. This suggests that the perception of medicine as a fixed subject choice requiring a specific set of pre-requisite qualifications is thoroughly out-of-date. In reality there is more choice than students think when it comes to choosing their subjects at A level.

This is important as UCAS reports that one in five students say that they were unable to study a degree subject that interested them because they did not have the relevant subjects for entry. UCAS’s analysis also found that a third of applicants recall thinking about higher education in primary school, with advantaged students 1.4 times more likely to do so than their disadvantaged peers. This suggests that careers guidance should start within primary schools and early secondary years to help students to understand the broad entry requirements for medicine and inform choice.

Other key findings from the report include:

  • 83% of students decided on their degree subject before they chose their preferred university or college, highlighting the role of subject-focused outreach.
  • 58% of medicine students had thought about their preferred degree subject before starting GCSE/National 5, compared to only 18% of business studies students and 20% of economics students.
  • 17% of students who reported having a parent or carer who is a medical practitioner are studying medicine or dentistry courses in 2020.
  • Over 10% of students who reported that they could not study a subject because of the qualification and subject decisions they made in school were interested in studying medicine.
  • 8% of students said that the pandemic had prompted them to apply for a subject leading to the medical or healthcare professions.

Dr Paul Garrud, Chair of the MSC Selection Alliance, said:

 “Today’s report from UCAS highlights that while there is no lack of choice awaiting students in higher education, students’ routes in are never straightforward. It takes time - often influenced by GCSE and A level choices (or level two/three equivalents) made years previously - for students to arrive at individual and highly nuanced decisions about which course they wish to pursue.

“Providing careers guidance to students about the entry requirements for medicine at an earlier stage is vital in ensuring that students understand the consequences of their GCSE and A level subject choices. Debunking the myth that A level qualifications in biology and chemistry are required for all medicine courses is also important. Medical school entry requirements have diversified considerably in recent years to allow students greater freedom in their choice of subjects.

“The report’s findings for widening participation must also not be missed – disadvantaged students are more likely to consider higher education later, which can limit their choices, especially for more selective subjects. This adds to existing evidence that primary school outreach is important because many children develop a sense of their aspirations and capabilities by the time they are eleven years old. We also know that that students from disadvantaged backgrounds will have been the most severely affected by school closure during the pandemic.

“Medical schools are deeply concerned by the impact of the pandemic on these students. In 2021 medical schools have ramped up their digital outreach, coming together through the Medical Schools Council, amongst other initiatives, to provide targeted support to prospective applicants, teachers and careers advisers in areas of disadvantage. We look forward to meeting teachers and careers advisers, via virtual conferences and webinars, from across the country over the next few months to provide up-to-date information, advice and guidance.”

UCAS: Where next? What influences the choices school leavers make?

-ENDS-

Notes to editors:

  1. The Where Next? report shares new and unparalleled insight into what drives and enables student choice among school leavers. The report seeks to understand how students make university choices and to what extent the choices students make in school affect their next steps.
  2. The report covers UK 18 and 19 year old applicants with data from the 2019, 2020 and 2021 cycles where appropriate. It uses data from a survey of over 27,000 first and second year students at UK universities and colleges, looking at the choices they made at school and into higher education. The report excluded information about graduate entry to medicine, that accounts for circa 10% of medical school places. Any statements are therefore only relevant for the subset of UK 18 and 19 year olds who apply to Higher Education and/or are accepted.
  3. UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, is an independent charity, and the UK's shared admissions service for higher education. The service manages almost three million applications, from around 700,000 people each year, for full-time undergraduate courses at over 380 universities and colleges across the UK.
  4. The Medical Schools Council (MSC) is the representative body for UK medical schools. The MSC Selection Alliance was set up in 2015 to implement recommendations from the two-year Selecting for Excellence project, including to widen access to medicine and to make selection equitable, transparent and evidence-based.
  5. The MSC has recently set up a website, Studying Healthcare, to provide enhanced information and support to students considering applying to study for a degree in medicine or healthcare at university. The council has also provided targeted and timely advice to applicants on applying to study medicine and the career options available after graduation through interactive webinars.
  6. The MSC entry requirements tool allows applicants, parents and teachers to access entry requirement UK medical schools. Collating and publishing this information is part of the medical schools’ response to the demand for clear and accessible entry requirements for medicine, as recommended in the Final Report of the Selecting for Excellence project.
  7. For more information on this press release, please contact Lucy Chislett on +44 (0)20 7419 5427 or email on lucy.chislett@medschools.ac.uk
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