Artist's impression of an expanded Magee campus along the river front
Ulster University has been advised to be "realistic" in terms of its timetable for delivering a medical school in Derry.
It comes after it emerged that plans to recruit students for the 2020/21 academic year have been scrapped.
The Department of Health said it has been made "very clear" that ministerial approval is needed for the Magee project.
A departmental spokesperson added: "It is projected to cost up to £30 million a year.
"Given current budgetary pressures, a long term commitment of that level would require cuts to services.
"It is for Ministers and the next Executive to decide on strategic spending priorities and take the required steps to free up the necessary funding.
"We will continue to work closely with the university on its proposal. It will be the subject of an objective assessment in advance of a Ministerial decision.
"Separately, the Department is progressing a Business Case to consider the best ways to address future medical training needs across the HSC, as identified in the recent Medical Student Places in Northern Ireland Review.
"We will continue to encourage UU to be realistic about the timetable for its project."
Meanwhile, in a lengthy statement, Ulster University expressed "disappointment" having done everything in its power to progress the case for a medical school.
As Northern Ireland’s healthcare system prepares for the annual winter pressures, Ulster University’s completed business case for the Graduate Entry Medical School has been taken as far as possible, in readiness for the political decision on funding.
Health care provision across Northern Ireland is at breaking point, the impact of which is felt acutely by patients who are having to wait for long periods of time for appointments and operations, a UU spokesperson said.
The Review of Medical Student Places undertaken by Professor Keith Gardiner has clearly demonstrated the pressing need within health and social care in Northern Ireland. Ulster University’s proposal is designed to help address the current health crisis and future proof care provision across Northern Ireland.
The Department of Health has consistently confirmed that the business case requires Ministerial decision making to progress further. With the continued absence of the political infrastructure to enable the required funding decision, the opportunity to recruit a 2020 intake to the Graduate Entry medical degree programme has now passed.
Professor Paddy Nixon, Vice-Chancellor of Ulster University said, “We have worked tirelessly with our partner agencies, clinical colleagues and the Department to prepare the ground for a political decision on funding. We have taken all possible steps within our control to establish the graduate entry medical school in time for a 2020 intake of students. All other elements of this project have been, and remain, firmly on track. The pivotal funding decision is all that remains, in order to take the next steps.
“With a crucial general election ahead, the needs of our health service and patients matter deeply to our communities. In the context of the extraordinary and unprecedented political landscape, Northern Ireland has been without its devolved government for over 1,000 days. The continued absence of political decision making for NI is a source of significant frustration and is time lost in educating the doctors we urgently need in our hospitals.
“This adjustment to our operational plans for the first cohort of medical students in 2020 is very disappointing for the healthcare sector locally and for prospective medical students keen to embark upon a rewarding and vital career path with us.”
Having secured cross-party political and health and social care support in 2016 for the Graduate Entry Medical School, the University has continued to proactively develop the project, working closely with the Department and other relevant partners to refine the business case in line with the normal process. The University’s completed Business Case was submitted in October.
Over the summer, Ulster University welcomed the General Medical Council (GMC) for its first visit to the Magee campus, as a key part of Stage 5 of its Quality Assurance process in the proposal to develop a Graduate Entry Medical School in the North West.
Commenting on the positive and productive GMC visit, Foundation Dean of the Medical School, Professor Louise Dubras continued, “The Stage 5 visit was an important and encouraging milestone for the University and its partners. The GMC visit team were impressed by a number of areas in our planning, and also identified some areas to be developed as the school moves forward, and we look forward to continuing to work closely with them as we do so. This progress has continued alongside the development of our local curriculum and arrangements for clinical placement.”
The GMC’s Stage 5 process can only be completed when it recommends progression to Stage 6; and that is only possible when a funding decision is confirmed.
Professor Dubras added: “This delay is beyond our control, but does not detract from our firm commitment to meeting this crucial healthcare need and the active progress of our plans, working closely with the Department. We value the support of all those who share our vision for medical education and we continue to work with the GMC, St George’s University of London, local clinicians and partners, towards a revised timeframe of 2021 for the first intake to the Graduate Entry medical degree programme.
"Awaiting the required Ministerial funding decision, we are building on our existing leadership in medical and healthcare provision to establish graduate entry medical education for Northern Ireland, in the best interest of our healthcare workforce and their patients.”
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