Research shows mature students with life experience make the best doctors, yet new student loan rules are set to put medical studies out of their financial reach.
Medical students have been protesting against a policy that restricts student loan eligibility to seven years over a lifetime. The policy, introduced in 2011, means postgraduate students will not be able to continue accessing loans.
University of Otago researchers investigated the performance of students who entered medical school after they had already completed at least one degree and also had significant work experience.
The older students made up 5 per cent of those who studied medicine at the University of Otago, but turned out to be the kind of well-rounded doctors New Zealand needed the research showed.
New Zealand Medical Students' Association president Phillip Chao said the cap was discriminatory for all postgraduate students, especially mature students wanting to be doctors.
The Otago study found mature students were more likely to still be working in New Zealand 10 years after graduating. Up to 40 per cent of New Zealand-trained doctors were not registered with the New Zealand Medical Council 10 years after graduating, and were likely to be working overseas.
Researcher Professor Paul Glue said mature students "did incredibly well academically" and "added maturity and diversity to medical classes".
They were also more likely to go into general practice.
Dr Rita Banhalmi, originally from Hungary, moved to New Zealand to study at Otago. She completed a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Sciences before she was accepted into Dunedin School of Medicine 14 years ago.
"In the meantime, life happened," she said.
"I married, and had a child. I'd always wanted to study medicine, but I knew I wouldn't be able to fulfil the demands of a medical course while my son was young."
Banhalmi was 28 when she was ready to commit to studying medicine.
"It wasn't easy, but if you put your mind to it and if you're determined, then you'll be able to do it," she said.
Glue worried that people such as Banhalmi might be deterred from studying medicine because they would not have access to a student loan after their seventh year.
"I'm not a fan of the [loan] cap," he said.
"If it could be waived in certain conditions, this would be one of those conditions. I would hate to think that really suitable people who tick all the boxes would be limited by lack of funding."
Executive chairman of Health Workforce New Zealand Professor Des Gorman said doctors' "generous remuneration" mitigated the seemingly unfair loan cap.
"One of the things I say to medical students is that for every one of them, there are 10 applicants," he said.
"Their course is a great privilege."
Education Minister Steven Joyce defended the loan cap.
He said students who did a three-year undergraduate degree and then a medical degree would have access to government funding until the end of the second-last year of study. For their final year, they were entitled to the medical trainee intern grant of $26,756.
However, researcher William Shelker said most students would save the grant and put it towards their overseas working experience.
Joyce said taxpayers provide a "very high level of subsidy to medical students".
The Otago study, which was published in the New Zealand Medical Journal last month, was part of an ongoing investigation into medical school admission criteria.
The research was funded by the Otago Medical Research Foundation, Friends of Otago Medical School, and Medicus.