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.