The government will face a vote in the House of Commons later today on its plans to extend the scrapping of the bursary for student nurses in England to postgraduates as well.
A debate, scheduled to take place this afternoon, has been forced by Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner.
“Instead of learning from their mistakes, the government are extending their cuts to even more nursing courses”
The plans, which Labour claimed the government had tried to push through the Commons without a vote in parliament, follow the decision to scrap the bursary for undergraduate students.
Undergraduate students stopped receiving bursaries from August 2017, but postgraduate trainees have continued to have their costs covered under transitional arrangements this academic year.
But in February, ministers revealed plans that, from August 2018, new postgraduates training as a nurse or midwife would be required to take out loans to pay for their training and day-to-day costs.
At the time, the government claimed its funding reforms were aimed at creating a “more sustainable model” for universities while increasing the supply of nurses and midwives to the NHS.
In addition, the Department of Health and Social Care said the changes to postgraduate funding would bring arrangements into line with the reforms for undergraduate students.
“Today, in the Commons, MPs from all sides will have the chance to show their support for NHS staff”
Under the current bursary system, postgraduate nursing students do not pay for tuition fees and typically receive an annual bursary for living costs of between £5,623 and £8,850.
In the future, postgraduate students would be able to take out an annual loan of up to £9,250 to cover their fees – although universities can charge different amounts.
In addition, they would be able to secure an annual maintenance loan typically of between £7,769 and £12,298, the government has previously told Nursing Times.
According to national figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, around 550 student nurses started postgraduate training on pre-registration courses in England in 2016-17.
However, Labour and nursing unions have strongly attacked the plans, highlighting the recent drop in applicants to undergraduate nursing courses at a time of critical workforce shortages.
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Latest figures show the number of undergraduates applying for courses in England had fallen for a second year in a row, meaning applicants are down by a third since the switch to a loans system.
UCAS data shows that, in the period since the nursing bursary was scrapped, applications to study nursing fell by over 15,000 – down by 33% from 47,390 applicants in 2016 to 31,750 in 2018.
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In an interview with Nursing Times, published today, Royal College of Nursing chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies noted that the figures represented a “bit of an I told you so”.
In addition, Labour pointed to that fact that, in the two years since the bursary was scrapped for undergraduates, applications by mature students fell by 42%, compared to the overall drop of 33%.
The party also highlighted that the government’s own analysis had indicated that the new round of bursary cuts might hit women, ethnic minorities and those with low incomes particularly hard.
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Analysis published by the Department for Health and Social Care in February warned of the adverse effect on women, and students from low income backgrounds.
Another document, published at the same time by the Department for Education, also suggested that female and ethnic minority students could be disproportionately affected by the new plans.
Speaking ahead of the debate, Ms Rayner said: “The decision to scrap nursing bursaries has led to the largest fall in applications for nursing on record, fuelling a recruitment crisis in our NHS.
“But instead of learning from their mistakes, the government are extending their cuts to even more nursing courses, which will make it harder for many students to train as nurses, robbing our NHS of the staff that it needs,” said the MP for Ashton-under-Lyne.
She added: “They even tried sneak through the latest cuts without even letting Parliament vote on it, despite the importance of the issue. That is why we have forced this vote.”
Ms Rayner also repeated a previous Labour pledge to scrap tuition fees and bring back bursaries for nursing students, if the party won the next general election.
Mr Ashworth, MP for Leicester South, said: “The government’s decision to abolish NHS bursaries has led to a huge fall in numbers applying for these courses and threatens to make the NHS staffing crisis even worse.
“Labour is fighting this regressive cut at every step and today, in the Commons, MPs from all sides will have the chance to show their support for NHS staff by voting with us to protect the bursary and make sure health students get the support they need,” he said.
Labour is hoping to put pressure on the Democratic Unionist Party to vote against the further cuts by pointing out that has previously committed to protecting the nursing bursary in Northern Ireland.
Due to its lack of overall majority following last year’s snap general election, the government has recently been forced to reply on an agreement with the DUP for support to pass legislation.
Administrations in both Scotland and Wales have already pledged to retain bursaries for student nurses and midwives, for the time being.
Speaking on the vote later today, RCN leader Ms Davies said: “The decision to remove undergraduate support resulted in a collapse in trainee applications. Ministers should think very carefully before risking a further drop at a time when our health and social care system is desperately short of nurses.
“This is the quickest way to train top-quality registered nurses and should be expanded, not cut off,” she said. ”The current shortage of nurses is jeopardising safe and effective patient care and the government urgently needs to encourage more people to enter the profession.”