Government plans to replace bursaries for student nurses and midwives with a system of loans are “ill-informed” and represent an “unprecedented gamble”, the royal colleges have warned.
Both the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwifery have submitted their responses to controversial plans to scrap the nursing bursary and tuition fees payment and replace them with a system of loans.
“They are likely to worsen a situation which is already unsustainable”
Under current government proposals, the new system would come into operation from September 2017.
The government has claimed that removing the bursary will free up universities to run as many course places as they can fill, potentially leading to 10,000 additional nursing, midwifery and allied health training places by 2020.
But unions have argued that the plans will saddle future students with large debts and deter many from choosing a career in nursing or midwifery.
In its official response to the government consultation on the plans, the RCN said it believed the move was an “unprecedented gamble” at a time when the NHS was already facing a major crisis in staff recruitment.
Calling for an immediate suspension to the plans, the RCN argued that key stakeholders must be brought together to explore different models of funding for the immediate and long term.
Janet Davies, RCN chief executive and general secretary, said: “For some years the NHS has been over-reliant on nurses from overseas, meaning that a move to train enough nurses here in the UK is long overdue.
“However, there is no evidence the proposed moves will help – indeed, they are likely to worsen a situation which is already unsustainable,” she said.
She added: “The idea that saddling future nursing students with debts of up to £60,000 is going to widen the entry gate to this vital profession, is completely at odds with reality.
“Nursing students are seldom 18-year-old school leavers, many have young families and previous careers, and debts of this scale would be a very major barrier to them pursuing a career in nursing,” she said.
The RCN also reiterated the results of a survey of more than 17,000 nurses, nurse educators, nursing assistants and nursing students.
The survey results – previously reported by Nursing Times – indicate that two thirds of respondents would not have studied nursing under a loans system, rising to 85% for those aged over 26 when studying. The average age of a student nurse is 29.
In addition, 89% of survey respondents said they believed that the funding changes would result in decreased numbers of student nurses.
Janet Davies added: “The evidence is now overwhelming, these proposals represent an unprecedented gamble on the future of nursing, which is already under threat.
“The government must suspend the plans, listen to stakeholders and the profession and come up with a properly thought through and piloted proposal to encourage people to train for this vital profession,” she said.
Ms Davies also highlighted the possible threat to postgraduate course funding, which was recently revealed by Nursing Times.
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“The RCN is concerned about the worrying lack of clarity or consultation about the effect that funding changes could have on those who need to train for more advanced or specialist roles, such as health visitors or district nurses,” she said.
In addition, she claimed there was also a lack of clarity surrounding how student placements would be funded in future – Health Education England has previously said it will continue to fund them.
Meanwhile, in its submission, the RCM claimed the government plans to remove bursaries for student midwives and other health professions were “pure sophistry” and “ill-informed”.
The RCM reiterated its objections that the plans risked saddling future midwives with up to £60,000 worth of debt and would “wreak havoc” on the diversity of the workforce.
“We are implacably opposed to these plans”
However, the college warned that a further concern was that workplaces would “simply not be able to cope with the influx of students that the government anticipates”.
There are not readily available clinical placements for additional students, said the college. A large number of new students will require a large rise in the number of experienced staff to mentor them.
It also claimed that government’s argument that its plans would mean more staff were “misleading”.
The issue is not a lack of available, qualified midwives, it is a lack of funding from the government to enable trusts to employ the numbers needed, said the RCM.
Unions attack ‘ill-informed’ bursary reform plans
Similarly, it warned that higher education would struggle to cope with a large influx of students, as there had been a significant fall in the ratio of midwifery educators to students over recent years.
Jon Skewes, RCM director for policy, employment relations and communications, said the plans were “poorly thought through at best” and “at worst threaten the stability” of the future workforce.
“If the government had bothered to ask organisations like the RCM for their thoughts on this before they went ahead with them, we could perhaps have reached a more sensible and acceptable solution,” he said. “They did not, and we are implacably opposed to these plans.
“They should think again, withdraw their plans and instead undertake a genuine consultation about how best to fund and support the future healthcare workforce,” he added.
Fellow union Unison has also submitted its evidence to the consultation on the plans this week, including a public survey.
Last week the RCN and the RCM were among more than 20 unions, charities and colleges wrote to the prime minister calling for a rethink of the plans to scrap the bursary and introduce student loans. RCN student members also took to the stage at their union’s annual conference to highlight the issue.