Removing bursaries for healthcare students could see the government “stumble into a disaster” of NHS recruitment problems, as potential nurses are put off by an average annual £900 paycut from loan repayments, MPs have claimed.
In a parliamentary debate last night over the government’s plans to end free university nurse education and instead introduce loans from 2017, MPs reiterated warnings that the prospect of debt risked deterring many people from training.
The debate was sparked by a petition against the reforms, which attracted more than 150,000 signatures.
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Other MPs last night claimed that if the changes resulted in increased course places, as the government planned, this could create a “bottleneck” of student nurses due to a lack of placements and also no guarantee of jobs.
Concerns were also raised about the government’s decision to bring in the new system without speaking to unions and other experts about its impact, with MPs noting the forthcoming consultation would only look at how to implement the policy.
But care minister Ben Gummer said claims that students would be deterred were false, as evidence showed the introduction of higher fees for other subjects – raised to £9,000 a year in 2011 – had not caused a decline in student numbers.
He reiterated the demand for becoming a nurse was high – referring to figures that showed last year there were 57,000 applicants for 20,000 course places – and that the introduction of loans would provide trainees with more money upfront for living costs.
“The changes will, effectively, charge students for working in the NHS”
The minister also said the government had consulted with “a number of chief nurses” who advise the Department of Health before announcing the policy.
However, Maria Caulfield, Conservative MP for Lewes and who is also a nurse, said the changes would be off-putting for mature student nurses in particular, who were likely to have already acquired debt from a first degree or have other financial commitments.
She noted it was “almost impossible” for student nurses to have a part-time job, as others did to supplement their income during training.
“We have heard how much time student nurses spend on clinical placements – more than 50% of their course, including nights, weekends and evenings – which makes it almost impossible for them to get any other income from part-time work. We must recognise that,” she said.
However, Ms Caulfield did acknowledge the current bursary system was not “ideal” and she welcomed the opportunity for reform.
“The government are stumbling into a potential disaster… for recruitment in the NHS”
She said it undervalued the contribution made by student nurses while on placement by only providing them with around £3,000 a year for living expenses.
The MP for Lewes called for alternative routes to become a nurse – such as through the government’s newly proposed nursing associate role, which could lead on to degree-level nurse apprenticeships – to be fully developed before phasing out the bursary scheme.
She said this would give students a choice about the way they are trained, without the need to take out a loan for a degree.
But the Labour MP for Sheffield Central, Paul Blomfield, criticised the reforms, claiming nurses who trained under a loan system would end up on average losing around £900 a year from their salaries in band 5 roles.
“The government are stumbling into a potential disaster, not only for the lives of those who will not be able to pursue their dreams of a career in nursing, midwifery or the allied health professions, but for recruitment in the NHS,” he said.
However, Paul Scully, Conservative MP for Sutton, Cheam and Worcester Park, claimed nurses would not be eligible to make £900 repayments until they reached band 6 earnings of around £31,000.
Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander noted that trainee nurses differed from other students due to time spent working on clinical placements, “sometimes, keeping our hospital wards running”.
“The changes will, effectively, charge students for working in the NHS,” she said.
Meanwhile, Labour MP for Ilford North Wes Streeting said it was “an absolute disgrace” the government was looking to make financial savings “on the backs of the front-line staff who form the backbone of our NHS”.
He also said he was surprised ministers were pursuing such “radical” reforms without having fully assessed the risks.
Ms Alexander echoed his concerns, claiming the government was taking a “reckless gamble “with the NHS workforce, without any evidence or facts to back up the changes.
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Mr Gummer said the government wanted a “full and detailed consultation about how the proposals should be implemented”. He added this would also address concerns about how to increase nurse placements.
“In the absence of alternative ideas, I believe that our proposals really are the way to expand places, improve diversity, increase opportunity, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, improve quality and provide support for those at university,” he said.