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Dealing with pharmacy student numbers

Janna Lawrence finds that professional organisations want numbers to be controlled

Controlling pharmacy student numbers at intake — option 2 in the consultation on ensuring a sustainable supply of pharmacy graduates — has been officially supported by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, the General Pharmaceutical Council, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, Pharmacy Voice, the Pharmacists Defence Association and the British Pharmaceutical Students’ Association.

However, the Pharmacy Schools Council and the Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists are split between this option and allowing the free market to continue.

The consultation, now closed, was from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Health Education England in response to growing concerns about a potential oversupply of pharmacists.

Pharmacy Schools Council “concerned”

The Pharmacy Schools Council says in its response to the consultation: “The council remains concerned about the detail of how Option 2 may be achieved, particularly with regard to timescales, numbers, and method of allocation, and its support is conditional on how these concerns would be resolved. In a managed entry system, the council would like a transitional period to assist schools moving to the new regime.”

A group of nine heads of schools of pharmacy has previously expressed support for the free market option (option 1) in a letter to The Journal (PJ, 2 November 2013, p462). They write that a quality agenda should drive the decision-making process and say: “The free market approach certainly has attractions because employers will be able to choose from a pool of applicants according to their workforce needs and students will be able to select their chosen school on the basis of where they believe they will receive the highest quality education and support for subsequent preregistration training.” They add that the control on entry model also has the potential to allow a quality agenda.

The guild has suggested a hybrid of the free market approach, with some degree of restriction on student numbers, as a possible solution.

The PDA strongly supports an intake control and has also presented data on the preregistration training places offered by pharmacy multiples. It shows that Boots more than halved its number of places between 2012 and 2013 from 702 to 324.

Mark Koziol, PDA chairman, said: “This is why we are recommending that, rather than employers receiving a grant from the Government to pay a prereg a salary during their training year, preregs receive direct NHS bursaries.” Mr Koziol has also criticised the “lack of central control” that allows universities to continue to establish new schools of pharmacy and to expand their operations profitably, which, he says, is one of the major factors in creating a situation where some graduates face the possibility of never registering as a pharmacist.

The PDA has said it also favours the integration of the preregistration year into the MPharm degree, as does the RPS, the GPhC, the guild and Pharmacy Voice. This is also supported by the BPSA because it believes this will bring “stability and predictability” to the profession. The Pharmacy Schools Council says there needs to be more direct and sustained patient contact at an earlier stage.

However, introducing restrictions on student numbers is not without its pitfalls; the RPS has warned against leaving Scotland’s and Wales’s pharmacy student numbers uncontrolled should restrictions be introduced in England. The PSNC has also said that “a tight cap may generate problems by reducing the workforce to a greater extent than that needed for the provision of a competent pharmacist workforce”.

The RPS explains its position, saying: “To strictly control one part of the higher education system for pharmacy training and leave Wales and Scotland relatively uncontrolled could distort training and leave English universities suffering cuts without a UK-wide decrease in graduates.” The response has been endorsed by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s English, Welsh and Scottish pharmacy boards.

Allocation based on quality

If intake controls were imposed on student numbers, the RPS says that it would like allocation of student places to universities to be awarded based on the quality of the course. A number of criteria were suggested that could be used to determine quality: entry qualifications of students; GPhC registration assessment and achievement of performance standards, averaged over a five-year period; GPhC accreditation of MPharm programme outcomes; research quality; investment over the past five years in staff and infrastructure; evidence of innovation and quality in the MPharm programme; and feedback from employers.

The RPS has proposed that international students would fund their own preregistration places through course fees paid to universities. However, places for international students should not compete with places for GB students, the RPS says. The Pharmacy Schools Council supports these suggestions and also strongly opposes international students being included in a cap on student numbers, stating that they should be factored in above and beyond any cap. The council suggests that application for work visas will regulate international students’ entry to the workforce.

Universities supplementing income

But the GPhC believes international students should be included in a cap on pharmacy student numbers, with a defined percentage of students from oversees. The GPhC also reveals: “We have credible evidence that universities intend to supplement their income by offering full-fee courses to overseas pharmacy students studying in the UK (as well as operating overseas). One such course has been accredited by us already and several others are set to follow.”

The regulator explained that this refers to universities which are planning to have extra places on their GB pharmacy courses each year for international students and these places will not receive any of the normal funding universities receive but will, instead, be fully funded by overseas students. The GPhC adds that the reference to courses operating overseas refers to several pharmacy courses being established with overseas campuses, where students split their four-year course.

The PDA, Pharmacy Voice and the guild support international students being included in a cap on student numbers. The PSNC says only students intending to work in GB should be included in the cap, which is also the stance adopted by the BPSA.   

No pharmacy body (as far as The Journal is aware) has come out in favour of introducing a break-point in the pharmacy degree, which is option 3 in the consultation. Pharmacy Voice explained that this option would be unworkable if the pharmacy degree were to become a five-year integrated course: “The separation of the clinical and non-clinical elements to facilitate this would be educationally unsound and a detriment to the profession.”

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2013.11130603

Readers' comments (2)

  • Personally I think that the best options to take the same approach with medical students in which the number of pharmacy students which can be accepted by universities is directly correlated with the demand for new pharmacists. Otherwise we will have a ticking time bomb where the number of pharmacists will be way more than required, more independant pharmacies will be made to compensate for this problem and everyone suffers as a result.

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  • John Smart

    It is important to note that the Pharmacy Schools Council, which represents the heads of schools of pharmacy across the UK, i n its response to question
    13 of the consultation: “Which of the three proposed options, or what combination of them, would
    you prefer..?” says that we are , “ broadly supportive of the move towards
    the management of student entry into the MPharm (Option 2)". This  broad support may not have appeared to be clear from the PJ article. However, this view is not unanimous  ' with some members seeing merits in Option 1'. 

    As I am sure you appreciate, this is a very difficult
    issue for Heads of school, as the whole student numbers issue, whichever option is adopted, could
    directly affect the future development, or indeed perhaps the survival, of
    individual schools, hence our more cautious approach relative to other responses from the profession.


    Prof John Smart

    Chair, Pharmacy
    Schools Council

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