Scottish Government risks raising the drawbridge to health professions, after bursary cut

The British Dental Association (BDA) has accused the Scottish Government of backtracking on its manifesto pledges and shutting off access to the health professions to those on modest incomes, following significant cuts in support to dental students.

The changes announced this week will mean a significant number – potentially the majority – of dental students losing access to the universal £4,000 a year Dental Undergraduate Bursary scheme (DUBS). The new Dental Student Support Grant (DSSG) will be means tested. Applicants with two parents both earning just a little over the “real living wage” of £8.45 per hour would be ineligible for support under the new system.

The SNP has consistently criticised the UK Government’s abolition of bursaries for nurses and allied health professionals, and in its 2017 manifesto committed the party to policy outcomes to attract and retain talented young people to work in the NHS.

The Scottish Government has stated its intentions to divert funds into a programme to support children from deprived schools to apply for dentistry. However, it is not clear if any progress has been made in implementing this scheme.

The BDA has previously joined with the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives, UNISON and the National Union of Students to seek clarity on the UK Government’s position on a reformed NHS bursary for health professionals in England.

Dental graduates are left saddled with tens of thousands of debt come graduation day, with many students choosing dentistry as their second degree often facing significantly more.

Paul Blaylock, Chair of the BDA’s Students Committee, said:

“The Scottish Government appears to be following Westminster’s lead, and risks raising the drawbridge to the health professions to kids from ordinary families. Dental students will be losing out on up to £16,000 over the course of their degree when their finances are already stretched and debt is rising.

“It’s a kick in the teeth to the vast majority of students who will spend their professional lives working for the NHS and improving Scotland’s oral health. This funding exists because these students face longer term lengths, and significant difficulties juggling their studies with part-time work.

“If the money is going to be shifted back into schools, the Scottish Government needs to indicate how that money will be spent to increase access to training as a dentist. There is a review underway of Scottish student finance. They have a duty to deliver adequate financial support for all students that meets their full cost of living and allows them to focus on their studies.”

Pay awards 2017/18

BDA Scotland has also responded to the Scottish Government’s announcement of pay awards for 2017/18. They have confirmed the DDRB’s 1% uplift on pay for GDPs. Following negotiations, they have also announced a 2.25% uplift on item of service fees, up from 1.61% in 2016/17.

Earnings and expense levels for NHS dentists in Scotland have fallen by nearly 30% in real terms since 2009. Scotland’s dentists are currently the lowest paid in the UK raising concerns around recruitment, retention and access. The Scottish Government is still considering when the uplifts will be implemented and the arrangements for backdating the pay award.

Robert Donald, Chair of the BDA’s Scottish Dental Practice Committee said: “We are pleased to have secured some concessions on item of service fees, but this will do little to change the direction of travel for general practice in Scotland. A decade of under-investment continues to fatally undermine recruitment, retention and investment across the service. The Scottish Government need to choose between their commitment to pay restraint and the sustainability of an NHS dental system on which our patients depend.”