Junior doctors have been urged to fight for their pensions amid fears government reforms could dissuade talented students from studying medicine.
Undergraduates paying full £9,000 tuition fees will be faced with debts of up to £70,000 by the time they start working, Tom Dolphin of the British Medical Association said.
They will also have to contend with their salaries being eroded by inflation and increased pension contributions which could leave some of the best would-be doctors questioning whether to pursue their careers, he told a conference.
In a speech which tore into the government’s “fundamentally flawed” Health and Social Care Bill, the chair of the BMA’s junior doctor committee said pensions remained the most all-consuming issue this year.
He encouraged all those present to agree to taking part in a strike to defend their pensions in the face of government reforms.
“At the moment, it is genuinely hard to find much cause for cheer,” Dr Dolphin said.
Addressing the Junior Doctors Conference in central London, he added: “We need to put up a fight. Imagine for a moment you were applying for a place at medical school right now. With £9,000 tuition fees you will be facing debts on graduation of up to £70,000.
“When you start working, a big chunk of your salary will be used to repay these debts. With salaries frozen for many years, your starting salary will have been eroded by inflation.
“And on top of that you will be faced with increased pension contributions. The burden of austerity is falling too hard on the shoulders of the younger generation and we are seeing this in medicine, too.
“With a future like this, will medicine still be able to attract and retain some of the most talented young people? Would you still make the choice to study medicine?”
Ballot papers are being sent to 103,000 BMA members with the result due at the end of the month. Should industrial action go ahead, it would be the first such action since the 1970s.
The association argues higher paid NHS staff already pay proportionately more for their pensions than most other public sector workers, a disparity which it said increased in April when their contributions rose, and which is set to increase again.
Health minister Simon Burns said: “There is no justification for doctors to take industrial action. Industrial action, on anyone’s part, will gain them nothing. We negotiated an agreement with the staff unions, including the BMA, even if the Chair of their Pensions Committee could not be bothered to come to meetings.
“Our proposals mean doctors will continue to receive pensions that are among the highest in the public or private sectors. A doctor joining the new scheme after 2015 could expect a pension of around £68,000 per year at state retirement age.”