Children at Medical School?
Laura SeQueira of the National Association of Student Money Advisers offers some useful advice for medical students (and their parents) facing increasing financial pressures.
"My son's debt after 5 years is £25,000 but he has had the benefit of receiving heavy subsidies from us. At first my reaction was one of shock followed by a feeling that he ought to tighten his belt, but that would undoubtedly have separated him from his friends who, fortunately for them and unfortunately for us, were all very wealthy.
Most students that I have spoken to seem very bright academically but frighteningly naïve about personal thrift. One aspect is the belief that once they qualify they will all be earning vast amounts. In many cases, in contrast to my generation of junior doctors, this belief is well founded. They therefore feel that they will be able to pay off their debts easily but ignore the fact that house prices have rocketed, many state schools are unsatisfactory and that ahead of them are many financial obstacles." GP Parent
Most commonly, students arrive at university on a wave of excitement and anticipation about starting life as a medical student. This is, of course, understandable and indeed essential if students are going to succeed academically. What is more difficult, is engaging students in the practical and financial aspects of student life, which might be equally as important to their academic success as their commitment to their studies.
Most of our interaction with sixth formers tells us that at that stage, students have a strong anti-debt stance and a patchy knowledge of what life as a medical student will entail financially. However, once at medical school, students quickly absorb the information that life as a student today means taking loans. For many students, access to often large sums of money unfortunately seems to come without any knowledge of basic budgeting skills or an understanding of the cost of independent living.
More expense as a medical student
Medical students also face additional challenges. The intensive nature of medical studies, the extra weeks of the medical school curriculum and clinical placements mean more expense but less time to take a part time job and keep their finances in check. In London, the cost of living is significantly higher for all students, so this adds to the challenges they face.
The picture of student finances changes fast and it is easy to have an outdated idea of what life as a medical student might be like. The whole concept of student funding has gradually shifted from grant to loans, never more so than now. From 2006 we see new students having to take out a loan to pay their tuition fees instead of apply for a grant. It is also much easier for students to gain access to credit from banks than when you or I were at university. Students are now making a significant financial investment in their studies, one that will be with them for most of their early working lives, and for even longer if they are unable to work full-time. For medical students, the levels of debt are greater because of their longer course.
As a result, their attitudes to how they live their life as a medical student are changing and we tend to see that students expect a better standard of living, perhaps with more of what might appear to be lifes little luxuries, in return for the significant financial investment they are making. This might be things like having an up to date mobile phone, buying designer clothes or going on long haul holidays with friends. Advances in technology also mean that many students rely on having their own computer, with internet access.
It is this combination of factors which explains the phenomenon some researchers have identified ie the move from debt-averse sixth formers to debt blind university students.
Before starting medical school
At the advice and counselling service here at Queen Mary, we help medical students from Barts and the London.
We are particularly keen for students to get help from our team of welfare advisers before they come to university, and other universities may offer this service too. Although we are always here for them if things do go wrong, the best way for them to avoid financial difficulties in the first place is to gain an accurate picture of the money they will have to live on from all the various sources available, plus a realistic idea of the cost of living based on their personal circumstances.
It may help to know that we can advise students at any point during their application process for medical school, and can help them to plan an individual budget that enables them to enjoy life as a medical student without getting into unmanageable debt. As well as giving students a clearer idea of what money they have to spend each week, the process also helps them to gain valuable financial literacy skills that they can rely on later on, if they face new challenges with their finances.
Support services for students
Like many universities, we provide a range of support services to help students to manage the transition to student life, and the new financial responsibilities that come with it.
Each student is allocated an academic staff member, who they can meet with throughout their studies to talk about any personal, academic, financial or practical issues causing them concern. Often, if their tutor feels that they need more specialist support, they will encourage them to access support services elsewhere in the university and will spend time helping them to understand how these services might help them.
We have a range of professional support services for students, including a team of trained and experienced welfare advisers who offer advice on a wide range of financial and practical topics including money management, debt counselling and sources of additional financial support. In some universities, these services are provided by the student union.
When we talk to medical students it is clear that a lot of them have money problems but that many find it difficult to seek advice from their university or student union advice centre. There are all sorts of reasons for this. Some medical schools are based in hospitals rather than on campus. Some student advice centres have opening hours which clash with clinical placements. Some medical students are worried about confidentiality. Others think their local advice centre won't understand the particular difficulties of medical students.
Interestingly, when a sample of medical students were asked to make an appointment for money advice at their student advice centre, some were pleasantly surprised by how helpful they were although some advice centres proved to be more geared up to provide money advice to medical students than others.
The best student advice centres can not only provide helpful information and personalised advice but may also undertake casework on behalf of students. This might include representing them or advocating on their behalf if they need help dealing with a particular agency. For example, we might write to their local authority to help them get the correct amount of financial support they are entitled to, we might formally negotiate with their creditors to agree sensible repayments they can afford or we could even represent them at a council tax tribunal if they had been incorrectly held liable to pay a bill.
One initiative I helped with is the development of http://www.money4medstudents.org/ This is a money advice website specifically for medical students. It has been developed by the Royal Medical Benevolent Fund, working in partnership with the BMA Medical Students Committee, the Council of Heads of Medical Schools and the National Association of Student Money Advisers.
One feature of the site is the opportunity for medical students to check what information, advice and support is available from their local student advice centre. This might include the opportunity to talk to a specialist adviser, in confidence, about their money problems. Alternatively, they can email their questions to the website's money advice clinic and receive confidential information and advice from a student money adviser. There's an unusually wide range of information and advice available on the website itself and each student user can tailor this to their particular circumstances by entering their medical school, year and country of normal residence.
Of course, on its own a website won't be enough to address the range of problems some medical students face. However, very positive responses to the website suggest it is a resource that medical students will find easy to use, relevant and helpful. It is definitely worth a visit, as part of the wider network of support available.
Top tips for parents
• If you are planning to support your daughter or son financially, try to be clear about how much you can give them and how often you will pay it. A regular and reliable source of income can be fitted into a planned budget far more effectively that one irregular amounts.
• Remember that things have changed since you were at University
• Try to find out the facts about student finance yourself so you can get a picture of what it might be like for your daughter or son.
• Help prepare your daughter or son for independent living by giving them an idea of how much things cost. Most students have never had to pay the week's shopping bill, pay for utilities or plan their meals for the week ahead.
Top tips for students
• Your money may come from lots of different places and at different times of year. You might get a loan, grant, bursary, money from family, part time work, vacation work, hardship funds, bank overdraft etc. The only way that you can work out what you will have to live on each week is to work out what money you will get from all these sources, plan a budget for the year before you start, and then stick to it.
• Visit the advice centre at your university or student union, if there is one. You might find out about extra money you are entitled to or can apply for, or discover ways of cutting your costs that you didn't know about.
• If things do go wrong, don't ignore it. Very often there will be at least some options to improve your situation, so get proper advice as soon as you can.
Laura SeQueira, head of the advice and counselling service at Queen Mary, University of London, and member of the National Association of Student Money Advisers.