Graduate Entry Medicine (GEM) students from the major universities in Ireland have banded together in an effort to resolve the lack of financial assistance for the course.
GEM students are currently not entitled to SUSI, meaning that students from poorer backgrounds are often excluded.
The GAMSAT entry exam is the start of a series of expensive costs, that judge students on the figures in their bank account rather than their academic ability.
Outgoing UCD Students’ Union (SU) president, Conor Anderson, explains that he has worked with the group of students since July of 2020, writing letters to politicians and organising Zoom calls with the aim of bringing the issue into the Dáil chamber and to the Minister of Education’s attention.
When Anderson was asked by UCD students for advice, he simply explained that they had to get numbers on their side. Since then, Anderson explains that the students have become a beacon of light for other student movements – a symbol of collective change.
Covid-19 has highlighted the crucial need for young doctors in this country. However, a student’s ability to secure a Bank of Ireland loan can determine whether or not they will become a doctor.
Anderson explains that being a key player in this campaign was a no-brainer.
“Do we want more doctors or not? Do we want the medical profession to be open to talented people from every socioeconomic background or do we want it to be limited to people who can afford 16,000 euros a year,” he asks.
UCD SU have since announced a price freeze in the cost of GEM. However, for students that cannot meet strict conditions for the loan, this is merely a stepping stone in the right direction.
Prospective GEM student Jason Dowling stresses that “the voices you hear are only people that actually got in. You don’t hear the voices of those who did not.”
He explains that students who do not meet the need for a parental guarantor who earn 50,000 euro a year, often feel out of options.
Eamonn Ó Ceallaigh, UL student, explains that the need for a parental guarantor excludes those whose parents have passed away, those with single parents and students whose parents do not earn enough money to meet the criteria.
“Some people don’t have wealthy parents, some people can’t provide a parental guarantor. We talk about family diversity so much and the different kinds of families out there… It’s not fair, it’s a bit outdated,” said Ó Ceallaigh.
Ó Ceallaigh admits that financial worries can often impact his studies. “It just lingers in the back of your mind.”
For Ó Ceallaigh and other students, moving to America or Australia after graduation seems like the best way to earn enough to pay back the loans that have allowed them to add the all-important letters to the end of their name.
Paying monthly repayments on the loan and paying city rent is simply not possible, something that means that the Galway native’s future is uncertain.
“The last thing I want to do is leave. I think that’s true for everyone… You’d love to stay and you’d love to actually work in Ireland. There’s nothing I’d love to do more than work in Galway,” he says.
He fears that his ability to get a mortgage in the future will be affected by his decision to study graduate medicine.
A neuroscience graduate who achieved a first class honours worked in McDonald’s, Tesco and with UCD in order to get through her undergrad.
She was part of a research project in Frankfurt am Main Germany at the Max Planck Institute for brain research as well as a process technician with Pfizer after graduation.
Yet the cost of becoming a doctor has always been a concern in the now GEM student’s head, even though it had been her dream since she was three years old.
“The expense of medicine was something I was wary of and made me shy away from it but I figured with the BOI loan, I’d be okay,” she says.
“I am from a very working-class background so I didn’t have anyone in my immediate family that made enough… No other loan needs 5/6 of the total to be made per anum by a guarantor.
“I applied anyway with my Dad as a guarantor as I had perfect credit, showed clearly that I was able to save (more than 34k in savings which I plan to live on for the next four years) and my Dad was employed by the HSE and another company, so he was in a very stable job,” she explains.
After being asked for several tax forms, she was eventually denied.
“They recommended finding a new guarantor – an option I do not have.”
The student is now trying to find ways of securing a different loan to remain in the course.
“I belong in this course,” she says. “I received top marks in the Christmas exams and having to drop out due to something as arbitrary as money infuriates me.”
Sorcha Feehan achieved a J. P McManus scholarship to help fund her undergrad in physiotherapy. However, she has always worked in cafés and hotels alongside her studies.
Now a GEM student, Feehan has a physiotherapy job, is a Pilates instructor and does grinds at the weekends.
She admits that she is prone to burnout and “usually takes too many tasks at one time.” For students like Feehan not working while completing a full time course was never an option.
“I feel the juggling between trying to make money and trying to study is hard… I worry about it all the time. It’s constantly worrying about how this is going to be paid for,” says Feehan.
The Carlovian is loving her studies and is constantly supported by her local GP. But something as simple as buying a coffee comes with a sense of guilt and worry for the future.
Rose Conway Walsh, TD, heard the lack of funding within graduate medicine from a student in her constituency. She has since raised the issue in the Dáil as “an important and urgent issue.”
“We need to pull down every barrier that is there that prevents people who are willing to do medicine and is able to do medicine from doing the course they want to do whether that be financially, because the resources aren’t there or because the points are off the Richter scale,” says Conway Walsh.
Senator Annie Hoey had known about the true cost of graduate medicine from her own time as a student.
“I’ve been aware of the need for greater supports for medical students since my own time as a student when many of my friends were exploring the option of GEM. Despite the fact they would have loved to pursue GEM the cost burden was simply too much for them, which was an enormous pity.”
Hoey is working with Deputy Aodhán Ó Riordáin and a group of GEM students in conjunction with a campaign for publicly funded education. They are proposing that GEM students be included in SUSI as part of the current review.
Richard Boyd Barrett, TD, explains that the recent health crisis has only further amplified the urgent need for more doctors.
“It’s a fundamental inequality in an area of qualification that is so important for our society. It truly beggars belief and defies logic.”
Image Credit: UCD