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Minister 'disappointed' by BOI decision to end graduate medical student loan

Fees for graduate entry medicine (GEM) students are now set at €16,290 per year for Irish students.

Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

MINISTER FOR FURTHER and Higher Education Simon Harris has said he is “disappointed” at a decision by Bank of Ireland to discontinue a loan available to graduate medical students.

Minister Harris is due to bring a review of the Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi) system to government, which will look at supports for students who pursue medicine through this route.

Fees for graduate entry medicine (GEM) students are now set at €16,290 per year for Irish students and €55,140 for non-EU students.

GEM students pursue the programme as a second degree – after first completing a separate related undergraduate degree -  so they are not eligible for free fees funding or student grants.

The fees of participating EU students are partly subsidised by the State through the Higher Education Authority – in the 2020/2021 academic school year, the State contribution was €11,524 per student.

The Bank of Ireland loan, which was capped at €15,000 per year, contained a moratorium on repayments so graduates would not have to start paying back the loan until four years after they completed their degree. 

The bank has said that those who have already taken out these loans will not be impacted, but that the loan will no longer be available for new applications after 31 July this year. 

“The loan required a parental guarantee which was not an option for all students and the deferral of repayments meant accumulated debt by the end of term,” Bank of Ireland said in a statement.

“It has accounted for a very small volume of our overall lending and the volume has dropped in recent years, while our other loans became more popular.”

The bank said it has a number of other loans for undergraduates, postgraduates and graduates.

“These include our student loan to fund back to college expenses, travel or living expenses, and our postgraduate loan. We also offer extremely competitive rates via a Personal Loan up to €65,000.”

‘Disappointed’

A spokesperson for Minister Harris told The Journal he was “disappointed with this decision”.

“His main concern is the cost of graduate entry medicine to the student,” she said.

“He is due to bring the Susi review to government shortly and will consider how to better support students in this context.”

Ruairí Power, President of UCD Students’ Union, told The Journal that it will be important that affected students are considered as part of the Susi review. 

“You can’t separate the discussion on loan requirements from the fee levels themselves,” he said. “The single most-effective measure the government could take would be to reduce the up-front cost for students.

“Loans are not an overall solution here, but having this loan facility removed pulled the rug out from under students and left them with no viable alternative.”

He said students who were intending to pursue a GEM are now planning to take a couple of years out to work and save the funds they need to continue with their education. 

“It’s either that or people will go abroad, and right now we have a chronic shortfall in recruitment and retention in the health service so a lack of access into that course will be a problem.

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“It was also meant to diversify the field and if it’s only available exclusively to those with a large amount of accumulated wealth it defeats the purpose of the GEM scheme.”

‘Colossal money’

Speaking in the Seanad earlier this week, Minister for State Anne Rabbitte said the decision “was sprung upon the government, and now the government is dealing with the matter as quickly as it can”.

“This is a priority for the government,” she said. “We do not want to be in such a situation where we cannot recruit young people into these courses because they cannot afford them.”

She said these loans were “so helpful because they acknowledged the level of professionalism required in such courses, that they were intensive and that there would be an opportunity at the end to work and earn enough income to repay them”.

“Removing the loans from the market makes it difficult for students to consider pursuing such careers. Parents may not have the funding or correct credit status to be successful guarantors.”

Minister Rabbitte was responding to a question on the issue from  Labour Party Senator Annie Hoey, who referenced a survey of Irish GEM students which found that the majority require external financial support to pay the university fees. 

“We all know how much those university fees are; they are €16,000 per year to study GEM,” she said. “That is colossal money. It is €64,000 that they have to take out as a loan. Some 74% of those who responded have or would have eventually sought to avail of the Bank of Ireland loan and that is a significant number.”

“The fees were already exorbitant and we have had conversations before about how it is unrealistic to expect people to pay them,” Senator Hoey said. “We will never have any sort of diversity in medicine if we have the likes of €16,000 per year fees and if we are locking people out of loans for that money because they cannot get guarantors or take out a personal loan.”

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