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Breaking News: Why is the BMAT being cancelled?

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

The Biomedical Admissions Test will run for the last time in 2023 after 20 years. Why? Cambridge University say the test is no longer financially sustainable. But does this just affect test takers?

The BMAT is a test used to help universities in he UK, Europe and Malaysia, compare medical, dental, biomedical and even Veterinary medicine applicants, using a single metric which could be applied to everyone. The test began to be used because qualifications like GCSEs, A levels and international equivalents differ in exam boards and content. As does experience in clinical environments and even the ability to obtain this experience. So the BMAT, similarly to the UCAT, is an entrance test which has been the same for every applicant.

Typically applicants to medicine and densitry have excellent grades and compete for few highly coveted places at universities. The number of places is set by the government in the UK, It takes significant investment by the NHS to complete the training of doctors, during and post medical degree and so the number is limited by the projected future need.

The BMAT exam is different to the more frequently used UCAT. Both are time pressured, but the BMAT is very academic test. Section 1 focusses on Critical Thinking - components of an argument - and Problem solving - number and logic puzzles. Section 2 is Science and Maths and the final section calls for an essay, but in quite a specific format. When one looks at the questions, it is impossible not to admire how elegantly they are designed and the work which must go into creating each one.

Preparing for the BMAT is a great way to increase your capacity to solve problems and it can even be fun taking on the intellectual challenge. Students often prepare for this test while still at school just after GCSEs or in the first year of their A levels. It is a pivotal moment in the life of many hopeful students wanting to study medicine, dentistry, biomedical sciences and veterinary medicine. Students and parents sometimes spend thousands of pounds preparing for the exam, feeling thier whole life spins on this one, two hour exam.

On Thursday the 10th of November, Admissions Testing, a non-profit department of Cambridge University, announced that they would withdraw this entry exam, along with three others, citing that it was not sustainable due to affordability and complexity. “…The bespoke and intensely manual delivery of these complex high-stakes tests is operationally and financially unsustainable in the medium to long term.”

Although the test is undeniably well crafted, which must be time consuming and require enormous skill, if cost is the issue, surely they could save money by delivering the test in a computerised form. Pearson has been doing this successfully with the UCAT for years, not only is it computerised, but you can even take the test online and from home.

The experience of Admissions Testing trying to do a computerised test during 2020 and 2021 may have put them off. Unlike the UCAT, where users randomly receive questions and do not all receive exactly the same questions during the test, the BMAT question are set each year and everyone sits exactly the same test. Because of this, when they attempted to computerise the BMAT everyone in the world doing the test had to log on and sit the test at the same time.

Perhaps unsurprisingly this caused a lot of problems and servers went down. There was a lot of outcry among students that people who managed to log on told peers about the questions and some even revised on phones and computers in the exam room. While the 2021 test was scheduled to begin at 0900, most students did not begin until hours later and in some cases did not get to sit the test at all.

Students may be worried about the 2024 test cycle, about a new test they are unprepared for. Universities are likely to either devise thier own tests, or to use the UCAT exam, which already runs smoothly every year between July and September.

It isn’t just prospective university students who are affected. There have been a growing number of companies who run their very business on this exam, many of them boldly, if slightly misleadingly proclaiming that 70% (Or more) of their students get into Oxbridge universities. This was possible because Admissions Testing kindly put all the past papers on their website to help students prepare.

Two companies started by medical students brought the sky high prices down, helping students prepare for medical entry exams cater largely to the BMAT and since these two companies have been so successful, a slew of smaller companies begun by medical students have cropped up. This may have helped medicine to become more accessible to people not born to wealthy families, something which could only benefit medicine. Students at Cambridge also to rely on marking the BMAT papers for extra money.

It seems rather sudden and it is hard not to wonder if the economic downturn which comes partly in the wake of the pandemic and partly as a result of the war between Russia and Ukraine, plays a part in this. Other factors may include the investment into a computerised test, made to keep the BMAT going during the pandemic. One could also speculate that if one of the incredible minds behind the BMAT were to retire, if this would contribute to the cessation of the exam.

The universities affected are all strong academic institutions and likely to weather the change well, putting their students first and with thought to the great responsibility they bear in educating the next generation of doctors. It is likely students should be less worried than the companies whose income and that of their employees depended on this exam.

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