Tuition fees and student finance are again in the headlines, as the Westminster Government plans a review of how the student funding system works. As dental students, with five-year degrees and longer-than-average academic years, we know better than most the strain the current funding puts on students.
The BDA estimates that dental students currently in their first year will graduate more than £76,000 in debt.
Despite this debt mountain, we still don't have enough to fully cover our living costs. In some cases, the student loan is more than £1,000 a year short of the estimated average living costs and, unlike many other students, getting a part-time job while studying for a BDS just isn't really an option.
Yet, student finance is only one of many challenges dental students face over the course of an academically demanding five-year course.
We need to be well-supported throughout our studies; confident we're getting the skills needed for real-world dentistry, free of worry about whether our student loans will cover basic living costs and secure in the knowledge that there's a DFT/VT place waiting after graduation.
These are exactly the priorities the BDA Students Committee has set out in its new Student Manifesto.
I've now stepped down after my year as BDSA President but Ella Holden and the Committee will be looking out for your interests, and this document sets out their vision.
What do dental students want?
We know that many dental students are concerned that they simply aren't gaining enough clinical experience and confidence during their studies to equip them for life as a dentist.
As oral health in general has improved, dental hospitals struggle to attract patients requiring the treatments needed to give the breadth and depth of hands-on experience.
However, a number of dental schools are taking pro-active steps to attract more patients and to assign them to students in a way that maximises exposure to a range of treatments and that addresses any skills gaps.
While it is inevitable that there will be some differences in the level of clinical experience of each student, there is undoubtedly more that can be done to share ideas and experience between dental schools to promote a greater consistency between students.
Connected to this is the need to ensure that dental schools have sufficient senior and specialist clinical academic staff to provide high quality education.
Over the last decade, the number of the most senior academics employed in dental schools has fallen significantly and last year 12 out of 18 dental schools reported difficulties in recruiting staff to one or more specialty.
The future of dental foundation training
As the next step in our professional journey, dental foundation training (DFT) is a key concern for dental students. While the BDA was able to defeat an attempt to cut foundation dentists' pay in England in 2014 and the last few years have generally seen all UK graduates get a DFT place, we remain concerned that there is no firm commitment to providing all UK graduates with a DFT/VT place.
Not only is this a personal disaster for the individual graduate, but it also represents an enormous waste of the taxpayer money invested in undergraduate dental education.
DFT provides an important opportunity for newly qualified dentists to become confident independent practitioners and to settle into the profession. It shouldn't be there as another stressful hoop to jump through.
The recent introduction of satisfactory completion in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – following Scotland previously – risks bringing this dynamic into DFT.
We hope that it will be a light-touch and supportive addition to the DFT, rather than a checkbox exercise. Foundation dentists should only be denied a certificate of satisfactory completion in exceptional circumstances.
Often, changes are made to DFT without proper, or any, consultation with the very people these changes will affect most.
We want the relevant bodies across the UK to listen to the voices of dental students when developing any new proposals and ensure there is consultation with the BDA as the representatives of dental students, foundation dentists and educational supervisors.
We've seen how when asked for our views, as we were on changes to the DFT assessment, dental students have opinions and want them to be listened to. This should be the norm when any changes are being made that affect us.
This will be even more important as Health Education England reviews dental training and education, with potentially radical changes proposed to how dentists are trained. It is vital that students and young dentists are properly engaged and consulted with throughout this process and that we're able to input on any changes that are made that will dramatically impact on our working lives.
Dental students need a voice
The BDA's Students Committee will continue to take up these issues; fighting on behalf of dental students to ensure that they receive high-quality education, with a student funding system that meets our living costs and a guarantee of the training place we need to work for the NHS.
BDSA President 2017-18
Want to help? Get involved
Each dental school has two representatives on the BDA Students Committee, elected by the dental students' society. If you are interested in representing your school then speak to your school BDA Representative or email firstname.lastname@example.org