Unions and employers have expressed concerns over the government’s announcement that student nurses in England will fund their education through loans rather than bursaries in the future, with some labelling it “irresponsible” and “wrong”.
But, in contrast, universities have welcomed the move, arguing it would allow more nurses to train and help to tackle the workforce shortage.
Announcing the change today, the government claimed it would enable universities to provide up to 10,000 extra nursing and healthcare training places during this parliament.
It also claimed it would mean students have access to 25% more financial support during their studies.
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The Council of Deans of Health, which represents nursing and midwifery faculties across the UK, agreed the move would increase the number of qualified nurses, but acknowledged it was a “difficult decision” to take.
“Adding financial pressures onto roles that are so vital makes no sense and will deter many from applying”
It also agreed the change in funding would also allow students to access more money for their day-to-day expenses via a full maintenance loan.
The change in funding, which will apply to nurses, midwives and allied health professionals, would help to alleviate the “workforce crisis”, said Professor Dame Jessica Corner, chair of the Council of Deans.
“We have a workforce crisis in health and social care and we’re still educating fewer students than the NHS needs. We recognise that this has been a difficult decision for the government but are pleased that the government has found a way forward,” she said.
“Cutting public funding to train frontline staff in an already struggling and understaffed maternity service just doesn’t make sense”
However, the union Unison said student nurse bursaries were a “major incentive” for people to train and that scrapping them was “wrong and irresponsible” at a time when there was a shortage of nurses.
“Nurses are already the lowest paid of all those who take vocational degrees. The starting salary is lower than a newly qualified teacher or a graduate police officer. Adding financial pressures onto roles that are so vital makes no sense and will deter many from applying,” said Unison general secretary Dave Prentis.
Royal College of Nursing chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies said: “Student nurses aren’t like other students. 50% of their time is spent in clinical practice working directly with patients and their families and they have a longer academic year.
“These proposals will saddle future generations of these student nurses with even more debt and financial pressures and unless nurses pay improves, many graduates will never be in a position to pay their loans back,” she said.
She added: “The ring-fence to nursing student funding has been removed and a precious link between the NHS and its nurses is potentially at risk, making it harder to plan for the future workforce. There are still a lot of question marks about how the system will actually work.”
The Royal College of Midwives described the move as the “latest blow” to the midwifery profession and also claimed it would put off many from applying for training.
According to its estimates, the college said the profession already had a shortage of 2,600 midwives, with many also close to retirement.
“Today’s announcement is extremely worrying,” said RCM director for policy, employment relations and communications Jon Skewes.“There has been no consultation on the proposed changes.
“Cutting public funding to train frontline staff in an already struggling and understaffed maternity service just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“The axing of student bursaries will inevitably make midwifery an unattainable and less attractive profession to thousands of potentially excellent midwives that our maternity services so badly need,” he added.
The NHS Employers organisation, which represents trusts, said its members would want to ensure any changes to student funding did not put off potential students from training.
“Employers will also hope that the introduction of any change will be done in a measured way and appropriately phased”
“Employers will also hope that the introduction of any change will be done in a measured way and appropriately phased,” said Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers.
“However there is a general recognition that we do need a training system that is more flexible and one that can quickly respond to changes in demand,” he said.
Professor Warren Turner, dean of the school health and social care at London South Bank University, agreed that there was a risk that potential students, especially mature and part time, may be put off by loans.
But he said the announcement also potentially “improves the financial support” available to student nurses and midwives because they would be able to access more funding during their education than under the bursary system.
“There is potential for student numbers to increase under the new scheme, but this will depend on provision of high quality NHS and other placements,” he said.
Unions attack ‘irresponsible’ student nurse funding shake-up
Professor Turner noted, however, that in future nurses leaving university and entering the work at the end of their course “may well expect higher salaries to enable them to repay their student loan debt”.
Meanwhile, a nurse agency described the change to student funding as a “devastating blow” for care provision.
Twenty Four Seven Nursing agency’s director Janet Smith, a former nurse and care home matron, said the prospect of taking on more debt would result in less people training as a nurse, leading to a “care crisis” for NHS and other providers.
“If we want people to choose to become nurses, we need to look after them as they will eventually look after us. Investing in nurses is investing in our own care in the future and we need to make sure we do not put short-term gains ahead of patient welfare and the future health of the nation and the NHS,” said Ms Smith.