The chair of the Commons health select committee has suggested that the government’s plans to remove bursaries for student nurses should be phased in rather than completely abolished.
Dr Sarah Wollaston, Conservative MP for Totnes, called on ministers to consider initially retaining a bursary for mature students and providing grants for those studying in specialities where there were particular shortages.
“It is important that we bear in mind the potential for unintended consequences”
Former GP Dr Wollaston was speaking in the Commons on Wednesday during the debate called by Labour shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander over the government’s controversial plans to replace bursaries with a system of loans.
While welcoming what she described as proposals to “open up many more places” to nursing students, she questioned whether MPs should “consider some unintended consequences”.
She highlighted figures showing that 23% of all nursing applicants were over 30 and the average age was 28, which Labour MPs had cited as evidence that future applicants would be put off by loans.
Dr Wollaston said: “The question is whether this core mature nursing workforce are going to be deterred from applying.
“I ask the minister whether there is any room, as we start to roll this out, to retain some bursaries for our very valued core mature nursing workforce for at least the first few years, until we know what the impact is,” she said.
“Is there any role for a period of transition,” she asked. “It is important that we bear in mind the potential for unintended consequences.”
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Dr Wollaston also suggested that some form of bursary system should be retained to encourage existing healthcare assistants to train as registered nurses, as a means of overcoming a current lack of continuing professional development opportunities.
“Very many of those people, whom we know to be fantastic at their job, are not able to progress in the way that we should be allowing them to do,” she said, adding that it was “best for patients” to “train up a more diverse workforce, through many routes”.
Dr Sarah Wollaston
“There is a case for saying, ‘Let’s not completely abolish bursaries in the first round. We could phase things in more slowly’,” she told the Commons.
Dr Wollaston went on the recommend that a limited system of bursaries could be used in a similar way to the approach being used in general practice to try to attract people into shortage specialties.
“Another opportunity we could look at to try to attract people into nursing is through recognising that the clinical component is very high in the nursing course, at about 50%,” she said. “Is there any way we could recognise that with a limited grants system for those who would otherwise be deterred?
“Perhaps at the end of a nursing course we could recognise mature students, particularly those who have taken on a second degree,” she said. “Is there a way we could allow an extra payment to go to those nurses, particularly those who are going to go on to train in specialties where there is a shortage, linked with a period of NHS service.”