A problem with free education - Macleans.ca

A problem with free education

Post-grad obligations for medical students could create a two-tiered system

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Is free education worth the years of service students are obliged to pay back? In the past couple of months, two grant programs have emerged in Manitoba with the aim of delivering access to key services in otherwise under-serviced parts of the province.

Both medical students and law students will now be able to apply for grants that will pay for the majority of their education. In return, though, they must spend their first years as doctors or lawyers in remote areas of the province, where access to legal and medical services is hard to attain.

While the government’s and the universities’ hearts are in the right place for wanting to help residents with accessibility issues while helping students graduate debt-free, I have to wonder if the deal will seem worthwhile once students are graduated and working through their contracts. How many students will have to give up great opportunities elsewhere to fulfill their educational obligations?

A program like this can very easily make it more difficult for low-income students to become big players in their field.

For example, if a student takes advantage of Manitoba’s medical grant program to its full extent, they will have paid for a huge portion of their education, but owe two-and-a-half years of service as soon as they finish their residency.

A student who finishes their undergraduate degree at the age of 22, finishes medical school at 26, could very well be over 30 before they finish their residency and begin paying back their time to the province.

A kid with a dream of becoming a thoracic surgeon — a highly-competitive position — will end up taking a break of nearly three years at the exact moment they are eligible to begin applying for jobs in their field. Instead, they’ll spend that time in the outback practicing family medicine. Meanwhile, their peers from wealthier backgrounds who did not require the government’s help to go through school will leapfrog into those jobs.

Family medicine changes lives. It provides extraordinarily valuable services to everyday people. There is also a significant doctor shortage in rural areas and that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. But programs like this, if not properly monitored, could end up creating a two-tiered healthcare system, one where wealthy students get the choice jobs, and poorer students make do with what’s left after their service has been repaid.