Layer 1

Are universities endangering the profession?

C+D analyses claims that pharmacy school entry standards are jeopardising the sector’s future

The claims were controversial even for a debate on student numbers. Earlier this month, the Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists (GHP) hit out at universities for endangering the profession by accepting below-par students.  It argued that too many pharmacy schools were putting quantity before quality – with some accepting as many as 40% of their students through clearing. This could have a number of conquences. The union argued that students accepted through clearing were less able, which ultimately could lead to a drop in professional standards. What’s more, the sharp rise in student numbers could create a shortage of jobs. So, to what extent are these claims true?


Claim 1: “There is a clear association between the number of students accepted through clearing and exam success”

Validity: 2 out of 5

On the face of it, these claims seem valid. Universities with the highest average success rates in the registration exam tend to have accepted fewer than 6% of their students through clearing, suggests GHP data obtained by a freedom of information request. On the other hand, universities that accepted 40% of more of their students through clearing had lower success rates on average.

But Nancy Kane, a medicines information scientist based in Newcastle, doubts whether the claims stack up scientifically. There is a “fairly strong” correlation between the number of students accepted through clearing and lower pass rates, she says. However, she stresses that there is “no real evidence” of a causative link. “There may easily be other factors influencing this: do universities with poorer reputations for teaching attract fewer applications at first and then have more places available when it comes to clearing time, for instance?” she says.

Pharmacy schools have also voiced serious concerns over the data itself. The University of Bradford said there are “major inaccuracies” in the figures and criticised the “blanket formula” used to calculate the estimated A-level tariff score of students.


Claim 2: “A crisis in professional standards is looming”

Validity: 1 out of 5

The high proportion of students accepted through clearing in some universities could lead to a fall in professional standards, the GHP argues. But is this really the case?

In reality, the answer is likely no. Regardless of the university they attend, all students must meet the national standards of the registration exam to qualify as a pharmacist – and there is no sign the General Pharmaceutical Council is prepared to dumb down the paper. After all, the GHP highlighted that this June.

If university standards are slipping, a more likely scenario is that students will complete their undergraduate study but fail to qualify as a pharmacist. This could have serious implications of its own – leaving students disillusioned and indebted.

Claim 3: "Newly qualified pharmacists could struggle to find a job"

Validity: 4 out of 5

Of all the GHP’s concerns, this seems the most valid. The number of students is undeniably increasing, driven by the increase in the number of pharmacy schools in England from 12 to 27 since 2000.

The union is not the only organisation to be concerned by the trend. In 2013, the Centre for Workforce Intelligence (CfWI) wrote an alarming paper on the growth of the pharmacy workforce. It highlighted that the number of students had rocketed from 4,200 to 9,800 between 1999 and 2009, and doubted whether there would be enough jobs to go around.

Even in the best-case scenario – in which pharmacists take on a wider healthcare role – the CfWI estimated an oversupply of 11,000 pharmacists by 2040.

We could see the consquences of the increase in student numbers well before then. The British Pharmaceutical Students’ Association is concerned there will soon be a shortage of pre-registration places. President Lottie Bain argues that it is only a matter of time before demand outstrips supply. “It’s something that we’re really worried about at the moment,” she tells C+D.

Ms Bain says more needs to be done to boost the number of pre-registration places. Although there are an increasing number of roles for pharmacists – highlighted by the latest move to place them in GP surgeries, for example – this diversity is yet to be mirrored in pre-registration placements. They are typically either in the hospital sector or community sector, where places are dwindling. “I think the bottleneck is going to be in the pre-registration year, because they’re not expanding pre-registration roles in the same way they're expanding the role of pharmacists,” Ms Bain says.


London Locum, Locum pharmacist

What profession ?

Leon The Apothecary, Student

With the costs of university study, it's surprising that so many want to go into pharmacy considering the financial return.

Farmer Cyst, Community pharmacist

It hasn't filtered through yet. Plus, perversely I suspect the depression in starting wage is probably hiding the true cost to some graduates who 'only' see £150 a month leaving their account. I'm a little older, and didn't do my pre-reg at a big chain, so I didn't get the sort of £16.12/hr shafting this years crop get, but between me and my other half (our salaries are nearly identical) our student loan repayments are slightly more than the rent on a 3 bedroom cottage in the country. In three years a house deposit would have been a piece of cake if that student loan wasn't there. All of the over 40s bleating on about how 'you only pay it back once you're earning' and 'its the best debt you'll ever have' are still ignoring the fact that it's a big financial burden, which will likely stay with you for two decades. The current crop of £9k fee students, with a maintenance loan, who start on the multiple standard £34k will repay £135k over 22 years for their Pharmacy degree. That's a pretty harrowing prospect.

locums locumen, Community pharmacist

We can not blame Universities for doing what they are supposed to do, which is basically to produce graduates, it is the function of a professional as a gate- keeper to police its profession. The Royal Colleges have done a fantastic job at policing consultants numbers. What the university do, is not our responsibility.

London Locum, Locum pharmacist

A word to everyone. Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic would not stop it sinking.....

locums locumen, Community pharmacist

The multiples want an abundance of pharmacist to drop wages, it is almost impossible for a young pharmacist to start a pharmacy from scratch or buy one, I wonder how that supports choice and free eneterprise?. We as a profession through the GPhc decides who becomes a pharmacist, we set the bar high, just like the Royal Colleges for doctors. If you do not pass, you do not get to practice. All European Union pharmacist should also be required to pass IELTS, and at least pass an exam in Law and Ethics to practice. The Pharmacy Laws and Ethics are not uniform all over Europe. If we assume that the EU is one country, well it is not, even in the US and Canada, where all parts of the country speaks English except Quebec and Puerto Rico, when you move from one province or state to another, you still need to pass the Law and ethics exam. The GPhc can make money of that, instead of increasing our registration fees. The reality is, getting a pharmacy degree and been licensed as a pharmacist are two different things. We must remain the gatekeepers of our profession. Has anyone ever wondered about the pass rates for the Royal Colleges, in General Practice, Surgery, Medicine and the top speacialties in surgery, they are really not that high, and academics and other factors contribute to that pass rate.

Really? Wow, Superintendent Pharmacist

Is this the level of science that pharmacy has come to?? The GHP made some statements with some evidence attached.....and this team at C+D are trying to use some kind of made up metric of "validity" focused around their own opinion and the fact they could get one person to kind of disagree with a statement! Wow!

David Miller, Hospital pharmacist

Claim 1 careful to use association not correlation and made no claim on causation asking the professional to debate why. for example a question do students from universities with poorer reputation (sic) get inferior pre-reg training places? If schools have concerns on data quality (FOI is a blunt tool) then I would request they agree with GPhC to publish the data already provided by them as part of registration so there is full transparency of if you cannot agree publish them individually yourselves? Please note the is a 5 year lag between entry and registration exam. Claim 2 - Not sure we made that claim as inferred but publicly totally supported the need for GPhC in its role protecting the public. Like you we shared concerns of this outcome on individual students in terms of debt and the effect of increasing disillusionment on the attractiveness of the profession for future students. Claim 3 - Apologies but despite the inferred validity again we have never stated that there are potentially too many graduates or an expected surplus of pharmacists accepting that may be the view of some organisations. We support many of the new roles and our experience is the profession has many exciting clinical opportunities ahead for example CFWI itself expects numbers of pharmacists to continue to increase in hospitals even with a near 50% increase in last decade. However these developments depend on maintaining and increasing through post grad development those currently on and entering the register. We called for a debate and welcome the continued involvement of C&D. Thank you.

Farmer Cyst, Community pharmacist

Interesting angle on point 1, quality of university affecting pre-reg place is no doubt a fairly significant confounding factor. I'd have to take issue with point 3 though, what exciting new clinical avenues? I don't know about you but it's the same old checking and numbers game here in community. Maybe in hospital you're doing some fascinating stuff, but considering I haven't heard any wailing from the BMA or nursing unions, I very much doubt you're getting close to the 'real stuff' - just like we're not in community. The only ambitious plan I've seen for the future of the profession is Lloyds Pharmacy and it's inevitable plan to replace us with robots, ACTs, and a Skype session.

Angela Channing, Community pharmacist

25 years ago I remember in Clearing, pharmacy was hardly represented. You might have got a couple of the old polys. This year, I found Bradford, Aston, even Nottingham there! To me, that means there is something wrong. A pharmacy student I worked with last week, told me her year has 160 students!! My year had about 70. Draw your own conclusions despite whatever smoke screen is being wafted at us!

Job of the week

Pharmacist Manager
Midlands, Cheshire & Dorset
Salary dependent upon experience