In an email update sent to some overseas candidates on February 2, the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) said “it is now no longer feasible” for them to sit the registration assessment outside of the UK.
The first two sittings of the delayed GPhC registration assessment are scheduled to take place at Pearson VUE centres in the UK on March 17 and 18.
However, after being given just six weeks' notice of the change, several overseas students flagged to C+D today that it will not be materially possible for them to travel back to the UK in time to sit the exam.
The GPhC told C+D on February 4* that 69 international students were sent the cancellation notice, who currently reside in countries with a five hour or more time difference to the UK.
In response to the students' complaints, the GPhC told C+D: “We have explored all potential options with Pearson VUE and unfortunately we have been unable to resolve the issues involved in providing sittings in countries where the time difference means candidates would be able to finish the exam before those in the UK start.
“Candidates living in countries where the time difference is less significant will be able to sit in test centres in those countries,” it stressed.
C+D has asked the GPhC if it will consider measures to help overseas students sit the registration exam as they had planned. However, the regulator told C+D that the email it sent to candidates outlines their reasons and that it has nothing else to add.
“Unable to resolve issues”
Candidates who had previously told the GPhC that they were living overseas received an email on January 20, seen by C+D, in which the regulator stated: “Due to the specific issues and travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we have made special arrangements for affected candidates to sit the Spring 2021 assessment overseas in your country.”
The email added that Pearson VUE – which the GPhC announced last November it had selected to deliver its online registration assessments – was able to “facilitate the Spring 2021 assessment for candidates who are overseas… in a secure way that does not comprise the integrity of the assessment”.
“We have asked Pearson VUE to arrange a space for you to sit the assessment in your nearest test centre in the country you are currently living in,” the GPhC advised. If no test centre was available in their location, candidates were told they would have been given the opportunity to sit the test remotely.
However, in a U-turn communicated to candidates, GPhC director of education and standards Mark Voce said the GPhC is “unable to resolve the issues involved in providing sittings in the country where you are currently living”.
The email details what candidates can do to ask for the GPhC exam fee to be refunded. It specifies that pre-registration and provisionally registered pharmacists cannot sit the exam at a test centre in their home country “due to the time difference”, which means they would not be able to sit the assessment at the same time as their UK colleagues and the content of the assessment could be “shared, inadvertently or otherwise”.
The GPhC also dismissed the option of sitting the exam remotely, as it “cannot guarantee that places can be booked online through the Pearson VUE system, and due to the concerns previously expressed by candidates about the potential difficulties of home environments, such as availability of suitable technology and internet connections, we do not believe that this option can be offered to you”.
Joint messages of disappointment
C+D received a flurry of complaints from overseas students, who joined forces to send out a common message of “disappointment” and “despair” following the GPhC’s email.
In their messages, the candidates asked for a possibility to sit the GPhC exam at a Pearson VUE test centre at the same time as UK candidates, adding that they are “willing to bear extra costs” – if, for instance, the invigilators need to work overtime to compensate for the time difference.
They also argued that they should be offered the possibility of “taking the exam remotely, as everyone should stand a chance [of] sitting…the exam, regardless of being in or out of the UK”.
Another suggested solution is for the GPhC to “create different papers for different time zones”.
The regulator had not responded to these potential workarounds at the time of going to press.
“Employability tremendously affected”
Prov-reg pharmacist Jing Mun Yong, who is currently based in Malaysia, told C+D today that she worked in a community pharmacy in South London during the pandemic, but after she completed her 52 weeks of training, she decided to go back to her home country as the GPhC had announced “that the assessment would be online”.
“Not being able to sit for the assessment has affected my employability tremendously,” she added, as she cannot work in her own country until she is qualified as a pharmacist.
Another candidate, who wishes to remain anonymous, told C+D that they are currently based and work full-time in Hong Kong. For a series of reasons – which include work commitments and flight restrictions – they said it will not be feasible for them to journey back to the UK to sit the exam at such short notice.
Saradha Naidu, a pre-reg based in Brunei, told C+D today that they “chose not to sit the March exam, knowing that something would go wrong”.
“It is highly unfair for the GPhC to expect us to fly out to the UK knowing how bad [the COVID-19 situation] is over there,” she said.
“In Brunei, we have not had local transmission of the virus since May 2020. How are we then meant to fly out to the UK with the lack of flights scheduled and the high price in tickets, having to think about accommodation, quarantine and trying not to get the virus,” she asked.
Last month, several prov-regs and pharmacists based in the UK took to social media to ask the GPhC to reschedule or scrap the registration assessment following the announcement of a third lockdown in England.
*This article was updated on February 4 to include the number of affected candidates and countries they reside in.