The government has been forced to defend its decision to scrap bursaries for nursing students in England, after a petition calling for the grants to be reinstated attracted widespread support.
In a comprehensive statement, the Department of Health and Social Care confirmed there were no plans to reintroduce the bursaries and instead set out the actions being taken to address nurse shortages.
It comes after Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced plans last week to increase bursaries for nursing students in the country to £10,000 a year by 2020-21.
The petition was launched on the UK Government and Parliament website by Labour councillor and health campaigner Liz Savage, who said she was concerned that the removal of bursaries was deepening the nurse recruitment crisis.
The government policy to replace bursaries for nursing students in England with a loans system came into effect in August 2017.
Latest figures show applications to study nursing in the country has fallen by 32% since 2016, the last year students were able to receive free education, according to data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
“Why should students from Southport or Scarborough be treated more unfairly than those in Stirling or Stranraer?”
The number of people actually accepted onto a nursing course in England has dropped by 8% over the same period.
Meanwhile, nursing vacancies across the NHS in England have risen to more than 41,000.
At the time of writing, Ms Savage’s petition to reinstate nursing bursaries had attracted 32,192 signatures.
The government is required to issue a response when petitions on the site hit 10,000.
In a statement released today, the DHSC said: “The are no plans to reintroduce bursaries, which resulted in many students being turned away from a nursing career. We are supporting universities to fill extra places created through these reforms.
“We are committed to ensuring nursing remains an attractive career so the NHS builds on the record number of nurses currently on wards,” it said.
The funding reform “unlocked the cap” on the number of pre-registration nursing training places that could be offered, the DHSC said.
Funding has subsequently been made available for universities and trusts to run an additional 5,000 clinical training places every year from September 2018, it added.
“We are committed to ensuring nursing remains an attractive career”
Department of Health and Social Care
The DHSC insisted students were at least 25% better off while they studied under the loans system compared to bursary due to increased support with living costs, and that “additional funding incentives” had been put in place for students while they were on clinical placements.
It also said it was investing £10m in the much anticipated £10,000 “golden hello” scheme for postgraduate nursing students in struggling specialities, which was revealed in May this year by health minister Stephen Barclay.
However, critics have since hit out at the slow pace of progress on the programme, which is yet to be implemented.
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- ‘Little progress’ on golden hello scheme for postgraduates
The department said there was “still strong demand for nursing courses” and that it had opened up extra routes into the profession such as apprenticeships for people who did not want to commit to a full-time degree.
It said up to 5,000 nursing associates were expected to train through the apprentice route in 2018 and up to 7,500 in 2019.
In addition, the DSHC claimed that it was taking steps to improve staff retention, return to practice, overseas recruitment and sickness absence.
It highlighted an announcement it made in June that “skilled” overseas nurses would be excluded from the cap on “tier 2” visas.
Speaking to Nursing Times, Ms Savage branded the government’s response to her petition “inadequate”.
She added: “Quite simply, the proof of the pudding has been in the eating and applications from England for nursing courses have fallen significantly since the bursary was removed.”
Ms Savage said the DHSC’s statement failed to properly recognise the current nurse shortages.
“There is already a huge strain on wards and our nurses are already massively overstretched,” she said. “This will only get worse as the crisis grows, so the government needs to act decisively and ensure the issue is addressed immediately.
liz savage three
Source: Sam Fulstow
“Health professionals should not be paying the same amount for their courses as other students and then basically working for us for free,” she said. “If we wish them to work such long hours then we need to respect that they need bursaries to help them to subsist.
She noted: “The bursary remains in Wales and Scotland, why not in England? In Scotland, they’ve even announced increasing it to £10,000. Why should students from Southport or Scarborough be treated more unfairly than those in Stirling or Stranraer?
“This government is undermining nurses and other health professionals and failing our NHS,” added Ms Savage.
The petition will be considered for debate in parliament if it reaches 100,000 supporters.
To view the petition and statement released by the DHSC, visit the UK Government and Parliament website.