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Mirroring society? Health Sciences students examined

7 September 2012

Mirroring society? Health Sciences students’ backgrounds examined

University of Otago research is raising questions about the extent to which health sciences students reflect a cross-section of society, but also shows progress is being made in broadening the student intake in terms of their social background.

The study, published in the latest issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal, suggests that efforts to encourage a wider ethnic and socio-economic mix of students to qualify for entry into health professional courses are making a difference, but there is still some way to go.

The research into the students’ sociodemographic characteristics was led by Otago’s Health Sciences Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Crampton.

Health Sciences students at the University of Otago compete for entry into eight professional programmes such as medicine, dentistry or physiotherapy after their first year of study.

The anonymous data from University records shows that Māori, Pacific and students from poorer socio-economic areas in 2010 are under-represented in all health sciences professional programmes.

For example, 51% of students in health sciences at the University of Otago are from schools which have a decile rating of 8 or above, and 3.5% attended secondary schools with a rating of decile 3 or below.

However, the programme with by far the highest proportion of Māori students is now medicine, with an all-time high of 16% of second-year medical students in 2012 being Māori, reflecting broader New Zealand demographics. This has been assisted by the priority entry programme, so long as Māori students meet minimum admissions criteria.

Over all eight programmes, the study found that health sciences students from the European/Other category made up 65% of domestic students (60% total NZ population 18-24 year olds), Asian 34% (14% 18-24 year olds), Māori 6.3% (17%), and Pacific 2.3% (9%) (noting that students could list more than one ethnicity).

“It’s clear that at the University of Otago, as in other international universities, health science faculties struggle to achieve a balance of students that reflects the ethnic and socio-economic realities they will serve as health professionals,” says Professor Crampton.

“However a wide range of selection and student support policies continue to counter these historical and social forces affecting student intake.”

He says continuing effort is required to work with other key stakeholders in the education system to better prepare school leavers for the demands of health sciences programmes.

“The University of Otago has strong policies aimed at modifying these imbalances within programmes, the health sector and society as a whole. These are targeted at attracting students from a wide range of backgrounds and helping those with specific learning needs.”

Professor Crampton points to the open entry to the first year of Health Sciences at Otago, which allows students to compete for places in professional programmes from second year onwards.

The study also details a range of additional support programmes to help students succeed. These include a bridging programme for Māori and Pacific students; outreach science courses such as ‘Science Wananga’ aimed at encouraging secondary students to continue with science; and the Advanced School Sciences Academy to motivate students from rural areas and low decile schools.

Professor Crampton says more recently, under government policy to encourage people to work in these areas, special consideration has been given to students from rural areas or those with a commitment to a career in mental health. Further diversity is encouraged by the fact that over 20% of those offered a place in health science programmes have already completed a degree.

For those students who have entered a health sciences programme there is now a variety of support and leadership roles aimed at assisting students in attaining their career goals and completing their degrees.


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