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Nurses warn 'safe staffing at risk' under plans to remove student bursary


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”

Ellie Archer

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”

James Anthony

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.

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.


Readers' comments (9)

  • Though I have heard the argument that the loans system is better because most nurses will not qualify to pay it off by nature of their earning I am not at all sure that the implied promise of low levels of nursing pay for the foreseeable future is one people will find comforting...

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  • One of the areas that concerns me with unsafe staffing is..... Who will support the nurse in the coroners court, when a patient has died due to a fall. When the nurse is looking after 12 or more patients.

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  • I started my training 43years ago, I have to point out accomadation was not free, the cost was taken from your wages before you recieved them, meals were paid for as you ate them, my first months wages was 45.00. Day to day life was hard and often in many respects brutal, 4 weeks (later5weeks) holiday did not go far, we just dreamt of having proper student status.If students went back to an apprentice system it could never improve the profession nor will removing the bursary and NHS funding.

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  • Anthony Johnson

    The HE Green Paper has heralded the erosion of the 30 year cap on student loan repayments. What that means is all future graduates, not just nurses, in debt for the rest of their professional careers. The wording of the consultation is horrendous and should be challenged by all unions, especially the RCN who are actually helping to implement them!

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  • As appalling the loans system is, it at least gives me a 40 year old the chance to do my nurse training. I have been unable to apply for the nurse degree simply because a s a single woman with no children, no rich husband or parents I could not make ends financially. Living basically in a modest house and my outgoings are £1250, just what I earn as a band 2 HCA. I would not be able to manage on a bursary of £400 a month.

    Hoping to pay of a couple of loans so my outgoings will be less, as well as doing another little job and so the loans system will be better in long run for me and others priced out of nurse training.

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  • For years, secondment has been the obvious and preferred route of most non-registered staff in or joining our Trust with those who prefer not to wait until the opportunity arises having the option of taking a bursaried route into nursing and other allied professions.
    The changes to funding and removal of the bursaries have meant that every single person I have spoken to who has expressed an interest in training to become a nurse has said that they "will wait to see what happens" and none are planning to apply to start in September 2017 when this comes into effect. The end of 2020 may be a very difficult time to work in the NHS if we dont get the newly qualified we need.
    The secondment route makes so much more sense. Students have a sense of belonging to an organisation without having to commit their future to them, they have to have proved themselves in a caring role before being supported to apply which means a higher probability of a quality workforce and they get paid at a similar rate to HCAs which means they dont have to worry about taking on extra hours to pay for essentials like food and can concentrate on becoming the nurses we need as a nation for the future.
    I'm please to see that there is something that our profession will finally stand firm on!

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  • I can see both sides of the argument. But I can't help but think for me personally, the loan system will be better, for two reasons. The government states that axing the bursary will leave more available spaces in university, as at the moment the bursary limits those spaces. For a HCA who's had 12 years experience working in hospitals, social homes, and mental health not to mention years of night school just so I can get the necessary qualifications to help me get into university ie doing the gcse and access course, which I worked hard for to get merits and distinctions. Despite all this, it still has not landed me place in university after 3 attempts. Apparently the competition was really high and I just didn't cut it this time round. Their only set limited places, meaning thier being pressured into picking wisely. The bursary is not enough for me and my partner to live by,having a house, and other necessary outgoings. I could work doing bank shifts, but as many of student nurses that I work with tell me, during the second and third year it would be very difficult to work, as the assignments and placements increase. I can't Risk that.
    So maybe for me the loan system will be better. I want nothing more than to be a nurse, I can't imagine myself doing anything else. If it means I end up in debt at the end, than at least I'm in a career that I love, and know it'll be worth it.

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  • What people forget is that nursing is not like any other job, and student nurses find it very difficult to supplement themselves with a part time job as they are rostered onto the wards, working shift work, weekends and don't perhaps get their off duty until a few days before the previous months has finished, thus making it near impossible to plan the following month. I know this as a Ward Sister who is finding it increasingly difficult to even do the next roster due to lack of staff. This not only effects my own staff with their childcare planning but also the students to. To remove the bursary is ludicrous, but just another nail in the coffin for the nhs under this government. I use to worry for my grandchildren about there being no nhs for them but I think it will be sooner than that and will effect me in my lifetime.

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  • I agree that as a single person with no kids or rich husband to support you, the bursary is very little to live on, nigh impossible if we are honest. However leaving University with £50K + worth of debt around your neck for the rest of your career is untenable also. Maybe the Gov could look into paying the Uni fees, scrapping the bursary and opening up the student loan for living costs. £30k around your neck is a lot more palatable than £50K +

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