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Could apprenticeships offer a way round the loss of the bursary?

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Despite the increasing complexity of nursing practice there is still a significant number of people who think nursing degrees are unnecessary. 

After all, who needs a degree – or even a diploma – to make beds with hospital corners and do what the doctor tells you? And that’s all nurses do, isn’t it? It must be true because Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail keeps on telling us it is.

The value of academic nurse education has been demonstrated time and again, in particular by the long-running international RN4Cast study. One key finding is that for every 10% increase in graduate nurses, there is a 7% reduction in the likelihood of an inpatient dying within 30 days of admission.

But it’s not all good news. Degrees are demanding and – particularly since the removal of the bursary – expensive. It is highly likely that the profession is losing many young people who would make excellent nurses.

Some people leave statutory full-time education with a sense of relief and are keen to go straight into work, while others may lack the confidence to attempt a degree. Before the role was phased out in the 1990s, if they aspired to a nursing career they had the option of becoming enrolled nurses.

There were good reasons for phasing out the EN qualification, but it did block a route into nursing that was used by many as a stepping stone to registered status and beyond.

Those who wanted to start earning as soon as possible had the opportunity to combine paid work with part-time study to convert to registered nurse status. Others who believed they were incapable of degree-level study changed their minds when settled into a career they loved and felt confident in; some went on to post-graduate qualifications and even became nurse academics.

“News that universities are adapting to the changes in funding for nurse education by offering apprenticeships in partnership with NHS trusts is to be welcomed”

The healthcare assistant (HCA) role was created to fill the gap left as the remaining ENs converted to registered status, but the ad hoc nature of training and responsibilities meant it trapped HCAs who may aspire to nursing in poorly paid jobs with no career progression.

There has long been talk of creating pathways into nursing for HCAs, and the nursing associate role is one option at an advanced stage of development. But if it is to attract the brightest and best the profession needs to offer a range of routes into nursing.

News that universities are adapting to the changes in funding for nurse education by offering apprenticeships in partnership with NHS trusts is to be welcomed.

One of the first is the University of Essex, which has 27 apprentices – who have already completed 20-month foundation degrees in health science – studying on its new two-year registered nurse apprenticeship programme.

“The number of people applying for full-time nursing degree courses has declined since the loss of the bursary”

All the Essex apprentices are employed as HCAs in one of four Essex NHS trusts, and will be paid the same wage while they study. And there’s more. Their training is being funded through the government’s new apprenticeship levy, which is applied to employers.

The number of people applying for full-time nursing degree courses has declined since the loss of the bursary. Perhaps more universities and trusts should follow Essex’s lead and tap into this new source of funding – before someone in Whitehall decides it’s a loophole that needs to be closed.

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