Government plans to remove student bursaries for nurses and other healthcare students in England are “riddled with risk” and are a gamble on NHS staff numbers needed for patient safety, Labour MPs have warned.
However, their motion calling for ministers to drop its plans to remove NHS bursaries and instead consult on how it can best fund and support the future healthcare workforce was not ultimately passed.
“This government has committed itself to a huge gamble”
In a House of Commons debate held yesterday, called by shadow secretary Heidi Alexander, Labour MPs urged the government to drop its plans to end free university education for student nurses.
They criticised the government’s absence of formal discussion with the Royal College of Nursing and other industry bodies about the risks of the policy before it was announced in last year’s autumn spending review, and claimed the consultation launched last month was not meaningful.
Justin Madders, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, described the proposals as “flakey” and questioned why the government was only consulting on the technicalities of the policy rather than whether it should be introduced at all, when there was no evidence base for its benefits.
He said he sympathised with care minister Ben Gummer for having to defend the proposals.
“We all know this policy was not devised in his department, but hastily ‘put together on the back of a fag packet’ somewhere in the Treasury following the Chancellor’s £2bn raid on the Department of Health budget,” he said.
“This government has committed itself to a huge gamble with the future of the NHS and with patient safety,” he added.
“The government are now targeting the next generation of nurses”
Under current arrangements, student nurses pay nothing towards their tuition fees and are provided with a bursary for living costs, but under government plans will have to take out loans to cover both from August 2017.
Concerns were reiterated in the Commons that people will be deterred from student nurse training in the future due to debts of at least around £47,000 from those loans.
Labour MPs noted this factor was more likely to put off mature students – typical of the nursing profession – with financial responsibilities, and also those choosing nursing as a second degree who would then accrue debts of up to £100,000.
Conservative party MPs at the debate reiterated government claims that the reforms would help to solve nurse shortages through allowing universities to provide an additional 10,000 training places by the end of parliament.
“We have seen universities released to innovate… satisfaction levels have gone up, dropout rates have gone down”
They argued that after universities trebled their annual fees for other students in 2012 to up to £9,000, there was not a reduction in the number of applications to university.
But Labour MPs accused them of failing to address “like with like” and noted the “unique” requirements for nurse training – compared to other subjects such as humanities – that involves many hours spent on clinical placements and leaves little time for a job to supplement income.
“Does the [care] minister not understand that student nurses, midwives and allied health professionals are different from other students?” said Ms Alexander.
“Can he not see it is dangerous to assume that just because application rates remained stable after the trebling of tuition fees the same will happen with his proposals?” she asked.
“Assuming healthcare students will respond in the same way as other students to a tuition fee hike is one hell of an assumption and one hell of a risk,” she said.
Wes Streeting, Labour MP for llford North, later added that the policy to scrap bursaries was “riddled with risk”.
“It is a fact that, in the wake of the introduction of Coalition [government] reforms to higher education, there was a fall in part-time and mature numbers,” he said.
Mr Madders echoed Mr Streeting’s comments, noting that the Higher Education Statistics Authority had found the number of mature students had fallen by 17% between 2011 and 2015.
Labour MPs attack ending of bursary but lose vote
In response, care minster Ben Gummer argued that the previous increase in tuition fees had led to more people applying to university than ever before.
“The evidence is quite clear,” he said. “This year, there were 394,380 people accepted onto places in this country. That is 35,000 more people accepted onto university places [than before the reforms]…as a result of the expansion of opportunity from the reforms.”
He also claimed that in the last five years the number of people going to university from disadvantaged backgrounds had increased by more than 10,000.
Mr Gummer also said the funding reforms were needed to improve the quality of training for nurses.
“What has happened in the undergraduate sector across the rest of undergraduate training, is that we have seen universities released to innovate… satisfaction levels have gone up, dropout rates have gone down.
“But we have not been able to spread those advantages to nurses who are still trapped in a system which is prescriptive, rather than listening to what they and future employers will need in terms of skills,” he said.
MPs voted against the opposition motion on NHS bursaries by 277 to 158.
The wording of the Labour motion was:
“That this House recognises the contribution of student nurses, midwives, allied health professionals and other healthcare staff; has serious concerns about the potential impact of removing NHS bursaries on the recruitment and retention of staff; and calls on the government to drop its plans to remove NHS bursaries and instead consult on how it can best fund and support the future healthcare workforce.”