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'I'm not surprised pharmacy schools are considering scrapping degrees'

C+D's newest blogger wonders what impact the pressures on universities will have on the pharmacy degree...and the profession

November brought news that the University of Sussex was consulting on proposals to stop admitting students to its MPharm programme from 2019. The press release issued by the university stated that “the demand to study pharmacy at the University of Sussex has been low over a period of time”. But I wonder if there is a spectre haunting schools of pharmacy – the spectre of capitalism?

I clearly have some stake in this particular game but, should the proposal by the University of Sussex be carried through to completion, it would come as little surprise. Frankly, given the increasing marketisation of the higher education sector and wider market forces, it seems almost inevitable that we will see some attrition in the sector.

The issue may be wider than just pharmacy, if reports of three universities facing bankruptcy are to be believed.

The abolition of caps on student numbers led to increased competition between institutions to attract students, as more students recruited equalled more revenue for a university. But entry criteria for degree programmes limit the pool of potential customers, and this may tempt the management of some universities to place downward pressure on the entry grades of undergraduate programmes. It appears that pharmacy degrees may not be exempt from this.

In fact, the pharmacy degree may make a very interesting case study. In 1999, there were 12 schools of pharmacy in England, and 4,200 pharmacy students. In 2005, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain’s (RPSGB) head of research and development stated that on the basis of a workforce model the RPSGB had developed and tested, “the number of pharmacists available to the workforce is unlikely to outstrip demand in the foreseeable future”.

By 2009, the number of pharmacy schools in England had increased to 21 and the number of pharmacy students was now almost 10,000. And in 2013, the Centre for Workforce Intelligence concluded that “the possible range of oversupply [of pharmacists] by 2040 across all the plausible possible futures is between 11,000 and 19,000”.

I don’t know the mean duration of foresight for human beings, but that was quite the turnaround over an eight-year period.

Despite all the talk of ‘under-utilisation’ of pharmacists – and the laudable aims of those who use the term – and while reliable data is difficult to obtain, I think it is likely that there has been a degree (pun intended) of over-supply in the pharmacy labour market.

This has had knock-on implications for pharmacist's remuneration, although I believe there is marked regional variation in this. Word gets around among potential applicants and their support networks, which may help to explain why applications to study pharmacy and pharmacy student numbers have dropped over the last four years.

Given the wider context, it comes as little surprise to see market contraction within the university pharmacy sector; whether that be by reductions in numbers admitted to institutions, reductions in the number of schools of pharmacy, or both.

Failure is inevitable in any true market – but I don’t think that market forces are the best way to decide how many pharmacists a society has, or where those pharmacists should undertake their initial education and training.

The Academic is a pharmacist who teaches at a school of pharmacy in the UK

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