A demonstration by student nurses and midwives against government plans to remove bursaries took place in London at the weekend with thousands of people in attendance.
The march began at St Thomas Hospital and ended at Downing Street, where speakers including Royal College of Nursing chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies and Unison head of nursing Gail Adams urged the government to listen to student concerns.
“Student nurses and midwives are the profession’s future and their voices and concerns must, and should be listened to”
The proposals, laid out by chancellor George Osborne in his spending review at the end of last year, would see the end of free university education and the introduction of loans for student nurses and midwives in England starting training from autumn 2017.
The government has claimed it would allow universities to provide thousands of extra course places by 2020 and help to ease the nursing workforce crisis.
But unions including the RCN, Unison and the Royal College of Midwives have said the prospect of debt would deter many from training.
Those attending the march in London – which followed a smaller protest in December – included shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander and former Labour health minister and nurse Ann Keen, as well as Green Party leader Natalie Bennett.
Other synchronised protests were also planned in Middlesbrough, Manchester and Newcastle.
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Speaking at the London march on Saturday, which was organised by King’s College London’s Nursing and Midwifery Society, the RCN’s Ms Davies described the proposals as “ill thought-out”.
“RCN students have today shown just how worried they are about this move and its potential effects,” she said. “Student nurses and midwives are the profession’s future and their voices and concerns must, and should be listened to.”
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RCN student council chair Sylvie Duval said the introduction of “hefty” loans would “only pile on more personal financial pressure to an already overstretched part of the health care workforce”.
“We are deeply worried about what this move means for the future of the NHS, our future colleagues and above all, patient care,” she said.
The introduction of loans for tuition fees and living costs could mean it costs students up to £50,000 to train.
Unions noted many enter their training as a second degree, meaning they already have debt from their first course.
“These government plans will undoubtedly deter many committed and talented people from considering a career in midwifery”
They have claimed low salaries among the profession mean it would be a struggle for nurses and midwives to repay their loans.
The RCM’s head of education and learning Carmel Lloyd said: “These government plans are appalling and will undoubtedly deter many committed and talented people from considering a career in midwifery.”
“The RCM is extremely disappointed that the government did not seek advice or consult with us prior to making this decision,” she said. “This is a change that has huge implications.”
She added: “Currently we have a diverse body of students who come from all walks of life, many are mature, not school leavers, who already have substantial caring and financial commitments, they will be particularly hit hard.”
A debate on the scrapping of bursaries is due to take place in the House of Commons this afternoon, after a petition gained the support of more than 100,000 signatures, which makes it eligible for debate.