Additional 200 new medicine course places to be offered by 2025

Move is aimed at easing Covid-related pressures on CAO points system for top courses

The Government will be asked in the coming weeks to sign off on a proposal to increase the number of places on medical courses by 200 - an increase of a third - by 2025.

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris will shortly seek approval at Cabinet for the significant increase in number of doctors being trained over the coming years.

The move is aimed at boosting the supply of doctors in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and easing Covid-related pressures on the CAO points system where some candidates missed out medicine places despite securing maximum points in their Leaving Cert.

The five-year plan will initially see an increase of 120 places over the coming two years, starting with the next academic year in September.

Some of the additional places will be reserved for priority groups under the new national access plan that aims to ensure new entrants come from a diversity of social backgrounds.

Mr Harris and his officials are also in discussions with their counterparts in Northern Ireland about the possibility of applicants from the Republic accessing additional places on medical courses in the North for students applying through the CAO university application process.

It is expected that this will start in 2023 with an additional 50 places.

The measures are part of proposals Mr Harris intends to bring to Government next month on expanding the third-level system with the focus for the next academic year being on increasing places in healthcare, social care, engineering and courses relating to climate change.

‘Skills shortages’

“Over the coming weeks I will be asking Government to expand the third-level system again. Unlike previous years, these additional places will be targeted in areas where there are skills shortages,” said Mr Harris.

"We know there is increased demand across health courses and we are working with our third-level institutions and the Department of Health to develop a clear plan to increase the number of places in areas of high demand."

The minister said he would also bringing proposals to Government shortly on plans to “increase the pathways between further and higher education”.

Adding places on medicine courses will come at a cost given that the annual cost of training a medical student is about three times the cost for a year’s studies in arts, business or law.

Academics say discussions on the funding involved were at a sensitive stage with one suggesting an estimate of €25,000 for the annual cost of training a medical student falls short of the actual requirement.

Dr Ray Walley, a Dublin GP and associate clinical professor of general practice at UCD, said the Government needed to go well beyond just adding new places on medical courses in order to retain existing and future medical graduates within the Irish health system.

Large shortages of GPs and consultants, high levels of graduate debt, and better and more lucrative opportunities overseas in countries such as Australia, the UK and Canada were encouraging graduates to leave Ireland after finishing their studies, he said.

Bank of Ireland’s recent decision to stop lending up to €60,000 to graduate-entry medical students would also have an impact on the number of new doctors being trained, he said.

“If you do not have a parallel loan system and do not follow that with a parallel tax system to allow for postgraduate expenses to be offset against tax, you are training for export,” he said.

“Creating more places may be a very sexy headline but I’m afraid without all the other bits and pieces it means nothing.”