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Nursing student left struggling after losing bursary while off sick

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A student nurse has criticised a “loop hole” in the bursary system that has left her struggling to make ends meet for taking time out from her studies to recover from mental health problems.

Louisa Higgs is in the final year of a paediatric nursing degree at London South Bank University but she has been off sick since mid-May for stress due to issues in her personal life.

“To be quite honest I don’t know how I am going to cope”

Louisa Higgs

After seeking advice from health professionals, Ms Higgs, who is a single mother to two daughters aged seven and five, took a formal “interruption” from her course and is due to return in October.

The 38-year-old, from Chelmsford, qualifies for the now-defunct government bursary for NHS students, which gave her £900 a month.

However, the scheme only allows for students to receive payments for up to up 60 days during a period of absence for illness, after which the cash is cut until they return to their course.

Ms Higgs, who was on her final placement at University College London Hospitals when she fell ill, said she had been desperately seeking additional benefits but help available was limited because she was still classed as a full-time student.

“To be quite honest I don’t know how I am going to cope,” she told Nursing Times.

Ms Higgs added: “I’m kind of flabbergasted as to how the system can work in such a way when you are off sick for stress and mental health issues there’s nowhere for you to go.

“I do feel there’s a loop hole there for people like myself feeling quite vulnerable,” she said.

“The original sickness leave limits were more generous, but were also abused by a minority of people”

Warren Turner

She added: “There isn’t the proper support system in place and I don’t know whether that’s something that should be looked at on a benefit level or bursary level or university, but I feel like something needs to be done to try and help other people that find themselves in my position.”

A spokeswoman for the NHS Business Services Authority, which administers the bursary, said it was unable to comment on individual cases. 

However, she added: “There may be extra financial support available to students who have temporarily withdrawn from their courses from external organisations. Students would need to discuss this with the relevant providers.”

The spokeswoman said the 60 day limit had been set by the Department of Health and Social Care, which declined to comment when approached by Nursing Times.

Professor Warren Turner, dean of London South Bank University’s school of health and social care, also said he could not comment on individual cases. But he added that students in this situation were able to apply for the university’s hardship fund and could also access free legal and financial advice.

He said: “The government brought in a limit of 60 days sickness absence in relation to the nursing bursary in order to prevent abuse of the scheme. There was a limited amount of money in the pot available to support the bursary scheme and this needed protecting.

“Prior to this, the original sickness leave limits were more generous, but were also abused by a minority of people,” he said. “Some applicants would start their course and then go off sick for a long time and this became a problem.

“However, nursing students who currently fall sick while completing the bursary course, may make a formal ‘interruption’ to their studies in order to take some time out and recover. Later on, once they’re well again, they are able to simply start studying where they left off and claim the bursary once more,” he added.

The government controversially withdrew the bursary for pre-registration nursing students in August 2017, replacing it with a system of loans.

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