Safe staffing levels could be at risk under “potentially catastrophic” government plans to scrap student bursaries in England, nurses have warned.
At Unison’s annual health conference in Brighton on Monday, nurses stressed their organisations were already struggling to employ enough staff and that the switch to loans from next year could reduce the supply of recruits further – contrary to the government’s argument for the move.
“Cutting off a demographic as big as mature students is a high-risk gamble”
It comes as the union’s annual snapshot survey of more than 2,700 nurses highlighted concerns over safe staffing, and revealed 55% of participants on that day had cared for eight or more patients, the level at which research suggests harm occurs.
Nurses at the conference reiterated concerns that many mature students – who make up a higher proportion of training numbers than with other professions – would be deterred from entering nurse education due to loans from previous degrees or the cost of supporting families.
“Cutting off a demographic as big as mature students… is not just stupid, it is a high-risk gamble that will end up further fragmenting our health service,” said Ellie Archer, from Unison’s young members’ forum, who will begin student nurse training later this year under the current bursary scheme.
One delegate said in his hospital they had estimated needing 250 newly trained nurses this year, but had only received 90. Stuart Tuckwood said the removal of bursaries at this time was “short-sighted and ludicrous”.
“It is safe staffing and safe, dignified, care that is at risk from this proposal”
While acknowledging the current bursary system was “inadequate”, Mr Tuckwood said that instead of being scrapped it should be improved by paying students a living wage for their training.
He said that student nurses were currently relied upon to prop up health services and questioned whether they would want to take out a loan to do this in the future.
“As a charge nurse in an acute hospital, I see it from the other side – how we rely on student nurses, as our services have been to cut the bone, to provide safe and kind care,” said Mr Tuckwood.
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Another nurse, James Anthony, noted that students being forced to take out loans for tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year, plus living costs, would result in a pay cut for them once they were employed.
“That debt is in reality a pay cut for hardworking professional staff, a pay cut we can least afford and a pay cut we need to stand up against,” he told the conference.
“Student nurse training of today, let alone the student nurse training of tomorrow is a Darwinian survival of the fittest”
Unison nurse member
In addition to future nurses being “plunged” into debt, he said it was even more worrying that some would choose not to enter the profession at all.
“It is safe staffing and safe, dignified, care that is at risk from this proposal,” he warned.
The inability of employers to recruit enough staff was also highlighted as one of the potentially “catastrophic” effects of the funding reforms by a member of Unison’s nursing and midwifery occupational group.
“[Jeremy Hunt] has taken one whopping big gamble with getting rid of the bursary system and going to a student loan system, because nobody at all knows how it is going to turn out…But some of the possibilities are absolutely catastrophic,” he said.
Meanwhile, older nurses noted the stark difference between the proposals and their own training from several decades ago, when they were not only paid but also received free meals and accommodation.
“When I reflect on that, it becomes clear to me that the student nurse training of today, let alone the student nurse training of tomorrow, is a Darwinian survival of the fittest,” said one nurse.
”Many [already] find it impossible to make ends meet and talent and enthusiasm is being lost to the health service as a result”
Unison nurse member
“Many [already] find it impossible to make ends meet, and talent and enthusiasm is being lost to the health service as a result,” they said.
“All of which is occurring right here, right now and will only get worse under the privatisation of nurse training,” they claimed, referring to the move to loans.
A conference motion to campaign to overturn the government’s plan for scrapping bursaries in England – and push for the introduction of a wage for students across all parts of the UK – was overwhelmingly carried.
Chancellor George Osborne announced plans to axe bursaries in November’s comprehensive spending review, claiming it would free up universities to provide an additional 10,000 training places by 2020.
A government consultation on the removal of bursaries – which will apply to student midwives and allied health professionals as well as trainee nurse – is ongoing until 30 June.