A medical degree abroad might be just what the doctor ordered
Students open to a challenge can pursue their dreams of becoming doctors and vets with foreign degrees
A city of some 640,000, Wroclaw is Poland’s fourth largest city. There are currently an estimated 124,000 students attending 26 public and private institutions in the city.
The picturesque medieval market square in Wroclaw. Photograph: Éanna Ó Caollaí/The Irish Times
Máirín Rua Ní Aodha
Anita Rose Babu
Having recently translated campus signage and the resources in the library to English, The University of Life and Environmental Sciences has gone to some lengths to make the Wroclaw campus more welcoming for international students. Photograph: Éanna Ó Caollaí/The Irish Times
While many who apply for medicine or veterinary science might see their career choice as a vocation or a calling of sorts, the unfortunate reality is that a place on one of these highly sought-after courses will be out-of-reach for the majority of Irish school-leavers.
Put simply, the number of applications for places far outstrips the places available. With just 483 undergrad places available to over 3,000 Hpat applicants each year and just 82 places available for veterinary science (of which 20 are reserved for students from Northern Ireland), the limited availability of places combined with high entry requirements will render any hopes of becoming a doctor or a vet redundant for most.
Cost is also a factor. Those wishing to study veterinary have no option but to travel to Dublin as the UCD School of Veterinary Medicine is the only centre for veterinary education in Ireland. This brings with it the additional burden of having to afford rent at a time when Dublin rental prices are spiralling and students renting in the capital can expect to pay anything up to €350 per week for accommodation.
The good news is that there are other options available. Students who do not meet the criteria or who cannot afford the combined cost of rent, registration fees and living costs in Ireland are increasingly looking abroad for the chance to answer their calling in life.
For students considering studying abroad, one of the first questions they must ask is whether the degree in question is recognised in Ireland and if they will be disadvantaged in any way if they possess a degree other than one awarded by an Irish university. Since 2005, the EU has operated a system promoting automatic recognition of professional experience across the member states. In short, doctors whose qualifications are automatically recognised under EU legislation are entitled to registration in Ireland without the need to sit the pre-registration exam.
The recognition of professional qualifications is laid down in Directive 2005/36/EC enabling the free movement of medical professionals including nurses, midwives, doctors (general practitioners and specialists), dental practitioners, pharmacists, architects and veterinary surgeons. The directive sets out the minimum training conditions which must be met and lists the evidence of formal qualifications in basic medical training to be provided.
Graduates will be expected to provide evidence of formal qualifications in basic medical training and the Medical Council recommends that students check to see what will be required in terms of degrees and additional certificates. Electives are organised between the intended clinical site and the student and the medical schools may help facilitate these arrangements.
Studying in Poland
The Irish Times recently visited a number of Polish institutions where Irish students have been placed by Medical Poland, an Irish-based agency that facilitates Irish students who wish to study medicine and other medical science related courses in Poland.
“Poland offers great education quality and is one of the top-ranked countries in the OECD Better Life Index,” says Medical Poland founder Adam Krawczyk.
The first Irish student to enrol in Wroclaw University’s five-year international programme, Cork student Máirín Rua Ní Aodha, had always planned on studying abroad.
“While UCD would be a wonderful academic environment I was dying for something new,” she says. Now in her second-year studying veterinary medicine, she recounts the day she enrolled.
“They showed me around the university and then they interviewed me about my motivation and why I wanted to study this subject. They were very happy with my motivations and my academic standards. And that was it – I was in!”
The Nicolaus Copernicus University Collegium Medicum in the northern city of Bydgoszcz is where the largest contingent of Irish students have been placed.
Of course, qualifying with a medical degree is no mean feat and Longford student Andréa Glennon, who is in her first year of the six-year MD programme in English at the university, advises prospective students to have a clear idea of what studying medicine entails.
“It is a hard course, it takes a lot of time and I don’t think you should do it if you don’t really, really, want it,” she says.
One factor that differentiates the course, however, is that class sizes are much smaller and student progress is measured by continuous assessment in the form of monthly or fortnightly exams.
“The teacher-student ratio is very good and you could have as few as five people in a tutorial,” says Glennon.
“I love the facilities here. It was very easy to go from Ireland to Poland – the HSE recognises the course (and regarding) the facilities, the standard of living, there were no bad points to it really,” she adds.
Professor Arkadiusz Jawien who is a vascular surgeon but is also the Head of the English Division at the Nicolaus Copernicus University Collegium Medicum in Bydgoszcz says teaching methods might be somewhat new to Irish students but that they learn to adapt quite quickly.
“The style of teaching is very different to what they have acquired in Ireland and maybe the first few months are a bit of shock. But, when I talk to them later, they agree that we are much more rigorous in the way how we execute the knowledge and how we organise the work and so on.”
While entry to universities is not determined solely by academic ability, in order to be eligible, students will need a minimum of six Leaving Cert passes including higher honours in two subjects from biology, chemistry and physics.
Universities will also seek to establish whether each applicant is suitable for the course and whether they have the attributes required to make a good healthcare professional. Students are required to sit an interview in which they are asked general questions about why they want to study medicine and what their hobbies are along with more pointed questions set to gauge their knowledge of science.
Andréa Glennon describes her experience: “I started the application in September of my sixth year and I had my interview in April. It also involves a personal statement, my school sent in a recommendation, my predicted grades, mock results and my grades since first-year to see how I progressed.
“They asked me about medicine, how it impacts society, how I feel about it – they wanted to see if I was passionate about it and if I could stick it. They asked about biology and chemistry. Some of the questions were of a Leaving Cert standard, some perhaps a little bit more. I found it to be a good process and there wasn’t a written exam which made it a little bit easier than some countries,” she added.
While tuition is in English, students are advised to make some effort to learn the local language.
“They would need to be open to learning a new language, as while the courses may be taught through English, they will need the local lingua franca in order to have a fully immersive experience of daily life in the country they choose to study in,” says Dr Liam Harkin, guidance coordinator at one of the country’s largest secondary schools, Carndonagh Community School in Donegal.
“You could come here, learn no Polish and academically that wouldn’t impact you. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend that and, from a cultural point-of-view and out of respect for the people you are living with, you should make an effort but it is not going to impact your academic career. Everything – labs, lectures, additional trips to the zoo for animal breeding – is through English,” says Máirín Rua Ní Aodha.
Costs and funding
Course fees vary and those who pursue veterinary and medicine can expect to be charged at the higher-end (€8-€10,000) of the scale.
Tuition fees are higher than in Ireland but the cost of living is significantly lower. Comparison website numbeo.com says consumer prices are 99.67 per cent higher in Dublin than in Wroclaw while rental prices in Dublin are a staggering 211.25 per cent higher in Ireland’s capital city.
Medical Poland founder Adam Krawczyk acknowledges that Irish students are attracted by living costs he says are “at a quarter of those in Dublin”.
“When you look at it, it works out the same or sometimes even cheaper than going to Dublin where the fees are much lower but the cost of living is so much higher,” concurs Máirín Rua Ní Aodha.
“I would say it is a third or as little as a quarter of the price of things in Ireland. It is really, really, good value,” she adds.
Another cost worth considering is travel – Ryanair services both Wroclaw and Bydgoszcz from Dublin throughout the year – and if students book early enough they should be able to buy their flights at a reasonable price.
For a €190 fee, Medical Poland assists students with the application process and helps them prepare for the interview. It also offers practical services such as helping students settle in Poland and representatives are on-hand to address any issues they may arise. While there is no Irish government funding available for fees, eligible students attending approved courses in approved institutions can receive a maintenance grant from Susi (Student Universal Support Ireland).
Fees aside, rent - as is the case in most countries - will be the biggest single cost faced by students.
The Irish students we spoke with in Poland tended to avail of the college dorms for the first semester or two.
They cost anywhere from €150 per month (services such as wifi charges included) but can be as high as €200.
The relatively low-cost of accommodation in Polish cities has led to many Irish students such as Lorraine Smith leaving their student accommodation in favour of more upmarket apartments once they find their feet.
“You just find an apartment and it is quite cheap. Compared with the cost it would be in Dublin, it is nothing in comparison. You can bring your Susi grant over and it is plenty to live off. It is a much more affordable city to live in compared to Dublin. You would be looking at around €200-€350 per month,” she said.
Students can register to stay in newly-built dorms with fellow international students but after a while the tendency is for them to eventually move into private-rented accommodation.
Prices in Poland depend greatly on the city, but students can get by with about €300 per month after rent. Poland’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education estimates that the average cost of student living ranges from €350 up to €550 per month.
“The great thing about Wroclaw is living here is so cheap. Rent is very cheap – you are talking between €100 and €300 per month depending on the size of the place or if you are sharing with other people. You can have beautiful accommodation for under €300 which is pretty sweet. And then the cost of living is much, much, cheaper. As a student, if you want to eat out at a restaurant, you can afford to do that. It will cost you maybe €8-€10 for a full meal. You can go to the theatre, you can go to the cinema or nightclubs. It is a lot cheaper,” says Máirín Rua Ní Aodha.
“The cost of living is so cheap. You can go to the cinema, you can eat out – it costs a fraction of what it does at home. It has made it a lot easier – you don’t feel as bad when you go out – if you don’t want to cook – you can eat out or eat in for pretty much the same price. The flights are very cheap to get here as well so it’s a win-win,” adds Andréa Glennon.
As both Ireland and Poland are full members of the EU, all that is required for travel between the countries is either a valid Irish passport or Polish passport or National Identity Card.
University authorities recognise the importance of access and good quality transport links can often be a determining factor as students decide on where they will study.
As Prof Jawien says: “We have an air connection with Dublin and London but none with Scandinavia. When I go to recruit Scandinavian students to our medical school, the first question they ask is ‘do you have an airport’? Do you have a direct connection with Oslo or Stockholm?”
Happily for Irish students and their families and friends who may wish to visit them, transport links are excellent between both countries.
Flight connections have rapidly expanded in recent years and most major Polish cities are directly accessible by air from Ireland.
Anita Rose Babu has already availed of the air link with home.
“I have been home four times now and my parents have visited as well. We have a good amount of holidays and breaks in between but yes there are certain times when you will miss home like when you have exams or something but after a while you get used to life here and it is fine!”
Flights operate between Dublin and Bydgoszcz twice a week. While there is no direct connection between Cork and Bydgoszcz, students can fly into Poznan which is a 1 1/2-hour train journey away.
Ryanair flies directly to Wroclaw from Cork, Shannon, and Dublin and parents and friends could do worse than take advantage of their loved one’s new home and visit this city. With its proliferation of renovated buildings, restaurants and pubs, it would give Krakow to the south a good run for its money for a short break or a weekend away. All large cities are generally serviced with good infrastructure with trains, trams and buses available at a reasonable cost.
Learning to manage money, it could be argued, is a skill in itself. This is no more apparent than when we leave home for the first time and have to fend for ourselves.
No matter where the place of study, college means that you will need to have money to-hand. And, while students are generally not working full-time during their time at university, it is important that they have the skills needed to care for themselves.
Unlike, their Scandinavian counterparts who can get government loans to study abroad, Irish students will have to pay the tuition fees out of their own pockets. They can however bring their maintenance grant with them and will need to learn how to budget over time.
While Poland is a member of the EU, it remains outside of the Euro Zone. The currency is the Polish Zloty and it works out at just over 4 Zloty to the Euro. Students will need to learn to convert fairly quickly as it would be unusual to see Euro equivalent prices advertised anywhere other than in the airport.
So what is the advice? Students who are keen on pursuing a programme in medicine or veterinary abroad should do the research. Contact others who have already taken that route and ask them about the course and the city where the university is located.
Tom Farrell, who runs the careers and guidance portal careersnews.ie, says these courses are suited to those who feel that a career in medicine or veterinary is for them but cannot get into the course in Ireland.
“From our experience of course entry, the enrolment process looks very simple. We are used to a much more intensive process with (Leaving Cert) points and Hpat but these are artefacts of a shortage of places rather than anything else,” says Mr Farrell.
Students will have the added advantage of being able to avail of more relaxed entry requirements.
While entry requirements might be less concerned with academic performance than those in Ireland, Mr Farrell advises that students going for these courses “should have a strong liking for the sciences in general but especially biology and chemistry”.
The enrolment process may make the course more accessible but students should also consider what practical impact living and studying abroad might have on them.
Living away from home for the first time can be difficult and Dr Harkin says students “would need to be mature, resilient, self-motivated and confident”.
“I would definitely recommend it to somebody who is able or willing to take on a bit of a challenge because to a certain extent it is a challenge at the start,” says Anita Rose Babu from Tullamore. “You are moving away from home, you are going into a different culture among other cultures so you have to learn to be flexible and adapt to it. But, you will get to it really quick, so it is not a huge challenge but you should be aware and keep that in mind.”
For more information on Poland, please contact the Polish National Tourist Office at London@poland.travel or poland.travel/en
Useful websites: Eunicas.ie; Medicalpoland.ie; Go-poland.pl