The Royal College of Nursing is calling for £1bn a year to be put back into nurse education in England to help students “struggling to make ends meet and arrest the catastrophic fall in nurse numbers”.
It has launched a campaign calling on students to lobby their MPs and highlight the difficulties they face since the bursary was scrapped, and build public support for investment in nursing education.
“Student nurses face unique challenges and increasing numbers are being forced to rely on hardship loans2
Student nurses are also being asked to share their experiences on social media to raise awareness of the “pressures they face and force the government to look again at how it funds student education”.
Dame Donna Kinnair, RCN acting chief executive and general secretary, has also written to health and social care secretary Matt Hancock, asking him for £1bn worth of funding from the government.
The money would go some way to replacing the funding lost when the student nurse bursary was scrapped and provide a “raft of incentives” to encourage people to study nursing, said the RCN.
The Fund Our Future campaign aims to influence the NHS Long Term Plan – also known as the new NHS 10-year plan – which is currently being drawn up and is expected to be published in December.
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The college highlighted that student nurses “face unique challenges”, compared to other students in different subject areas.
It noted that, on top of 2,300 hours of academic study, they were required to complete an extra 2,300 hours of clinical placements over their three-year course.
This, it said, equated to up to 50% more time spent on their course than the average student.
The RCN warned that student loans “barely covered” the cost of travel, housing and food, and that nursing students did not have time to commit to a part-time job to help pay the bills.
The pressure leads to high attrition rates and increasing reliance on hardship loans, it noted, with such hardship payments to nursing students rising 6% to £3.47m in the 2017-18 academic year.
As has previously been reported by Nursing Times, the number of applications to nursing degree courses has been on the decline since the end of the bursary in 2017.
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The RCN also highlighted a series of data trends, which it said indicated the negative impact that the scrapping of the bursary had meant for the profession.
Falling student numbers are contributing to the growing number of nursing vacancies in England, which now stands at almost 42,000, claimed the college.
Understaffing was “already jeopardising patient safety”, it said, and unless action was taken immediately, vacancy numbers were projected to rise to at least 48,000 in the next five years.
Since the bursary was scrapped, applications were down by a third and there have been 1,800 fewer people accepted onto nursing courses, it added.
Dame Donna said: “The RCN is backing student nurses across England as they call on the government to put a minimum of £1bn a year back into nursing education.
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“This is not just a fight for their own education and wellbeing, but for the future of safe patient care in England,” she said.
Dame Donna claimed that the government’s policy to increase nursing student numbers by scrapping the bursary has “failed”.
“We now face falling student numbers at a time when nursing vacancies in England are expected to hit 48,000 in the next five years,” she said.
She added: “Student nurses face unique challenges and increasing numbers are being forced to rely on hardship loans to make ends meet.
“This is on top of clinical placements where they are too often used to plug rota gaps instead of being supported to learn,” she said. “It is time to rethink student education funding.”
“It is no surprise attrition rates are so high. I speak to students who cannot cover basic costs such as food”
Kelly Hitchcock, RCN Student Committee member, said nursing was one of the “toughest degree courses you can take” and had been “hard-going” even with the bursary.
“Now, with the added pressure of spiralling debt and a loan that often doesn’t cover extra costs such as travel to placements, too many students are pushing themselves to their limits to qualify,” she said.
“It is no surprise attrition rates are so high,” she said. “I speak to students who cannot cover basic costs such as food and accommodation, and those whose own mental health is suffering due to the pressure they are under.
“This cannot continue. For the sake of current and future student nurses and safe patient care, we will make ministers listen to us – please add your voice to ours,” she added.
As reported by Nursing Times last month, more than 10,000 people have signed a petition to reinstate bursaries for nursing students.
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The petition was launched by West Lancashire borough councillor and mother-of-two Liz Savage, who is vying to secure a debate on the issue in parliament.