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Medical School Debt (The No-Nonsense Guide)

Medical School Debt (The No-Nonsense Guide)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

One of the major drawbacks of going to medical school in the UK is the huge pile of debt you’ll be landed with at the end of your studies.

Five years of medical school isn’t cheap and even on a doctor’s salary it takes a lot of hard work to pay back.

Despite having worked as a doctor for a number of years now, I don’t feel like I’ve put a dent in mine at all!

However, I really don’t want this to put you off going to medical school.

Student loans are automatically wiped after thirty years, so for many people, their ‘total debt’ amount is actually a relatively meaningless figure that doesn’t impact their day-to-day finances.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be clued up on how things are going to play out and what options you have for funding medical school.

Does The NHS Pay For Medical School?

First of all, do you even have to pay for medical school yourself? Or if you plan on being a doctor who works in the NHS for their entire career, can you get the NHS to pay your tuition for you?

The NHS does not pay for medical school in the UK. Medical students have to get a student loan (or self-fund) in the same way as any other student. However, the NHS does offer a bursary for the final year’s tuition fees as well as a £1000 grant to all medical students.

Unfortunately for us, there’s no easy way out of student debt by getting the NHS to pick up the tab.

Although they won’t fund your entire journey, they do still offer a very generous bursary. If you’re a British student studying in the UK, you’re eligible for the NHS bursary in the latter part of your degree.

Course Year123456
Five or more year undergraduate courseNot eligibleNot eligibleNot eligibleNot eligibleNHS bursaryNHS bursary
Accelerated four year course for graduatesNot eligibleNHS bursaryNHS bursaryNHS bursary

The NHS bursary consists of four parts:

  • Tuition fees (paid directly to your university in full by the NHS)
  • A bursary (depending on your household income)
  • A grant (a fixed £1000 sum for all students)
  • Additional allowances (depending on your circumstances)

So although you won’t walk away from university debt-free, the NHS does considerably soften the blow.

What Is The Average Medical Student Debt In The UK?

So, if you’re going to have to pay your own way through medical school, what’s the average amount of debt a newly qualified doctor starts their career with?

The average amount of debt a UK medical student will leave university with is between £50,000 and £90,000. This figure depends on how long their degree was (typically 4-6 years), whether they studied in London or not and whether they were studying medicine as an undergraduate or a postgraduate.

I’ve given a range here because there are a huge number of factors that can affect your total student debt.

It depends on whether you studied medicine as an undergraduate or postgraduate, how many years you were at university, where in the country you studied, whether you’re a home or foreign student, if you lived at home, how you chose to finance your studies… You get the picture.

What I thought might be helpful is to run through a couple of case studies. The exact figures are very unlikely to perfectly apply to you, but they should help you get an idea of what you could expect if you go to medical school.

So let’s first consider a British undergraduate student, who’s enrolled on a five-year medicine course and is going to live away from home. Their parents’ household income is £63,000, meaning they’ll only be eligible for the minimum maintenance loan amount.

With this high household income, they also won’t be eligible for the means-tested bursary money from the NHS.

Year Of Medical SchoolTuition FeesMaintenance LoanTotal Debt
5NHS pays£2,389£57,485
Figures are estimates only

So this student will have £57,485 of debt (without considering interest) at the end of their studies. They will have received a £1000 grant from the NHS in their final year, but I haven’t deducted it from the total as living costs for a student typically far exceed the maintenance loan amount available to high-income households.

Next, let’s look at another undergraduate student who’s studying in London. Their household income is £32,000 (approximately average for the UK) and they want to do an intercalated year as part of their studies.

Year Of Medical SchoolTuition FeesMaintenance LoanTotal Debt
5NHS pays£3,354£87,070
6NHS pays£3,354£90,424
Figures are estimates only

This student would also likely qualify for the full NHS bursary scheme, which would give them up to £4,191 annually from their fifth year of study (£3,191 as part of the means-tested bursary and the £1000 grant).

This student would then walk away from six years at university with £90,424 in student debt (discounting any accrued interest).

Now £90,000 in student debt is understandably an incredibly scary figure. However, as we’ll see in the next section, it might not be as bad as it seems.

Do Doctors Pay Off Student Loans In The UK?

So, with students leaving university with such vast quantities of debt, you may be wondering whether doctors are ever able to actually pay off their student loans?

Doctors, as a result of their high earning potential, are perfectly able to pay off their student loan debt in the UK. However, whether they do or not is down to personal choice. Instead of repaying their student loan, doctors might instead choose to put their money towards a mortgage or other investments.

Student debt is unlike any normal loan debt: it’s totally wiped after 30 years of repayments. So you could have £1000 left to repay or £100,000, but after 30 years you’ll be debt-free.

Because of this, student loan repayments can almost be seen as a sort of ‘student tax’ that you just have to pay for 30 years after going to university. Your total amount of debt doesn’t actually influence how much you repay each month at all.

So why would a doctor choose to pay off their student loans?

Well, by overpaying on their minimum monthly repayments, doctors are able to clear their debt before the 30-year cut-off. Although this may seem counterintuitive, this normally results in them actually paying a smaller total sum of money to the Student Loans Company.

Here are some very rough and ready figures to demonstrate my point:

If you have a starting salary of £30,000, with an 8% annual pay rise, and you’re only contributing the minimum repayments, your student loan figures will look something like this:

YearDebtTotal InterestTotal Paid
Figures are estimates only

You’ll clear your debt after 28 years, having paid a total of £184,546. £70,000 of that was your initial loan principle and £114,546 was interest.

Now, if you were to actively overpay your student loan amount, you’d be able clear your debt in a much shorter time and so pay significantly less interest.

To be clear, these numbers are not fantastically accurate in any way. I’ve not followed the NHS pay structure for consultants nor can I predict future interest rates. But what they can do is give you an idea of why some doctors do choose to overpay in order to save money in the long run.

How Long Does It Take To Pay Off Medical School Debt?

As we’ve seen, how long it takes to pay off a student loan will depend on whether a doctor chooses to make overpayments or not, how their salary progresses through their career and what interest rates do in the future.

The approximate average time a doctor can expect to clear their student loan debt in the UK is between 20 and 25 years. However, there are a vast number of factors that can influence this timeline making it incredibly difficult to estimate.

Personal circumstances will also have a big part to play, with people potentially getting money from inheritance, diverting money to pay for a house, or in the worst-case scenario losing their job.

I’m personally aiming to overpay my student loan and so reduce the total amount of interest I pay over my loan’s term. I do however only have the luxury of this opportunity as a result of having no dependants, being in a secure job and having a relatively low cost of living.

If I do end up just making the minimum repayments, it’s by no means the end of the world as after 30 years I’ll be just as equally debt-free.

Final Thoughts

All these large figures can be understandably scary if you’re wanting to begin your student journey but are concerned about your financial future.

I think the key is to remember that if you’re sure medical school is the right choice for you then it’s always going to be a good investment. I’ve never met a doctor who regrets going to medical school because of its financial implications!

There are also ways to reduce your dependence on the Student Loans Company. You can work during medical school, apply for scholarships and other bursaries and even get sponsored by the Armed Forces.

The reality is that as a doctor you are almost guaranteed to be a high earner for life, with incredible job security, meaning that investing in your future is always going to be the right choice.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.