Students, nurses and healthcare workers gathered at Westminster earlier this week to appeal to their MPs over plans to the scrap student bursaries in England from next year, urging them to force the government to drop its plans.
They accused the government of “silencing” the profession by not providing a full consultation and by having failed to debate the issue fully in parliament.
“We’re really concerned the nurses of the future are going to be so demoralised because they are going to be saddled with £50,000 of debt”
In their appeal to MPs, they also pointed out potential problems with the government’s claim that thousands more nurses could be trained under the reforms, noting the lack of mentors due to the workforce shortage.
Nurses stressed they would not have been able to enter the profession without the financial support currently provided, while healthcare assistants warned they were now reconsidering whether they could afford to apply under the new funding arrangements.
Currently students pay no tuition fees and are eligible for an annual bursary of up to £8,750 for living costs depending on where they live, plus a reduced rate loan.
The government’s plan is to scrap this system and replace it with loans, which will see students build up debts of around at least £47,000 over three years.
Nurses at the lobby said this would deter people from less wealthy backgrounds applying for training or increase drop-out rates for those that take on jobs while studying to help with financial commitments and find they cannot cope.
“It’s all good and well saying you can have 10,000 extra nurses but who is going to mentor these nurses? We already have a crisis within the nursing workforce”
Linda Hobson, a nurse from Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and chair of Unison’s northern regional health committee, said she was worried the future workforce would be demoralised and that patient safety could be at risk if student nurses were working other jobs.
“We know how difficult it was for us getting through it and we’re really concerned the nurses of the future are going to be so demoralised because they are going to be saddled with £50,000 of debt, or they are working to prevent themselves getting into so much debt they haven’t got the energy on the wards [on placements] and there’s a risk to patient care,” she said.
Ms Hobson said she believed the reforms would reduce the diversity of the NHS workforce, which would result in fewer nurses from less wealthy backgrounds.
“The government have shied away from having a proper dialogue and proper conversation over this,” she said. “They won’t let it be properly debated in parliament and they won’t allow a proper full consultation to happen – they’re silencing us in some respects.”
“They won’t let it be properly debated in parliament and they won’t allow a proper full consultation to happen – they’re silencing us”
Craig Smart, a support worker from the same trust, said he wanted to become a nurse after working as an HCA for 15 years but was reconsidering along with many others due to the reforms.
He also questioned the government’s claim that 10,000 additional healthcare university places could be created under a loans system by 2020.
“We need to make the government aware this will damage the profession rather than help us,” he said. “It’s all good and well saying you can have 10,000 extra nurses but who is going to mentor these nurses? We already have a crisis within the nursing workforce at present.
“There’s a lot of things unanswered of how this is going to be of benefit,” he added.
Alex Robinson, who is studying nursing at Teesside University and who has two young children, said she could not have afforded to train without the bursary and said she believed the reforms would lead to a drop in applicants.
“If the changes come in next year, three years from then they won’t have as many applicants those years and then what are we going to do when we still need that many nurses,” she said.
“I just can’t see how it will work in the long term,” she said. “Maybe it will save an amount of money currently but in the long-run when you think about agency staff we’re going to be relying even more heavily on, that is so costly.”
“In the long-run when you think about agency staff we’re going to be relying even more heavily on, that is so costly”
More than 100 people spoke to their MP at Westminster as part of the lobby, which was co-ordinated by organisations including Unison, the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Nursing and the National Union of Students.
The government announced the reforms – which will apply to student nurses, midwives and allied health professionals – in its spending review in November.
It said the changes meant universities could provide up to 10,000 extra healthcare training places as they would no longer be constrained by government funding. Around two thirds of applicants were currently turned away from these courses, it added.
Students would also receive around 25% more money for living costs under the loans system, according to the government.
A consultation on how to implement the plans is open until 30 June.