The Welsh government must “stop dithering” and “make its mind up” over whether to continue providing bursaries to student nurses, members of the Welsh Assembly have warned during a debate.
They said a lack of clarity over education funding in Wales was causing “real concern” within the NHS and among trainee nurses, following the Westminster government’s decision to end free education and remove bursaries for healthcare students in England.
“The removal of financial support for nurse education in Wales would increase the risk of poverty for nursing students”
Rhun ap Iorwerth
During yesterday’s debate, health secretary for Wales Vaughan Gething said the Welsh government had committed to continue to offer the same bursary arrangements for students studying in 2016-17. He said he expected to reveal further details on education funding later this autumn.
However, he said that current arrangements where students from other parts of the UK could access funding for healthcare courses in Wales would have to change in future due to the creation of the loans system in England.
Plaid Cymru shadow health minister Rhun ap Iorwerth said the UK government’s decision at the end of last year to remove student nurse bursaries in England from 2017 had “set alarm bells ringing” in Wales and Scotland.
The Scottish government confirmed over the summer that it would continue to provide free education for student nurses and bursaries for their living costs – at least in the short term.
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But in Wales – where students currently have their tuition fees paid for by the government and also receive a bursary for living costs – ministers are yet to announce plans, though they initially stated that the change in funding in England would have “inevitable implications” for Wales.
Mr Iorweth called on the government to retain the bursary and said nurse training needed to be “strengthened” and “put on a firmer footing”.
“The decision to remove bursaries in England has resulted in a number of difficult cross-border flow issues”
He said more nurses would be needed in the future to care for the ageing population and predicted the UK’s vote to leave the European Union would result in fewer nurses from overseas coming to work in the NHS in Wales.
“The removal of financial support for nurse education in Wales would increase the risk of poverty for nursing students, and may discourage people from this career option as a result,” he said. “Therefore, there’s the possibility of failing to hit the numbers that we require to train.
“Even delaying the decision has caused some concern,” he said. “The insecurity that that creates must no doubt be hampering the ability of the Welsh government to plan the healthcare workforce of the future.”
Also speaking during the debate, Labour assembly member David Rees described the removal of bursaries for student nurses, midwives and allied health professionals in England as an “untested gamble” that he did not want to see repeated in Wales.
He suggested new models of education should be looked at instead of removing the bursary in Wales, such as “apprenticeship-type schemes”.
“Removing this vital funding could potentially prove to be fatal to the staffing levels”
Welsh Conservatives assembly member Angela Burns said she supported the motion put forward by Plaid Cymru, which called on the Welsh government to ”retain the nursing bursary as part of a wider programme to support more people from low income backgrounds into careers in the Welsh NHS”.
She called for an inquiry into the support available for nurses and other healthcare students required to complete placements as part of their training.
During his responding comments, Mr Gething said the British government’s decision to remove bursaries in England would have “significant impact on the costs of supporting those who wish to study health-related subjects”.
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He said it had caused a “number of difficult cross-border flow issues”. “The bursary arrangements meant that students from the rest of the UK choosing to study in Wales were funded through the arrangements in Wales, and that approach was reciprocated by the other UK governments,” he said.
“That will now change,” he said. “We in Wales, though, committed to keep the current arrangements for 2016-17, and we have. The decision taken by the UK government to remove bursaries in England has resulted in a number of difficult cross-border flow issues that we are currently working through.”
In a statement released yesterday ahead of the debate, the Royal College of Nursing in Wales said it was anxious to receive a decision from the government about retaining the bursary.
“We understand that difficult decisions regarding budgets must be made, but would-be students also have important financial decisions to make and to not have a definitive answer on this issue is leaving those individuals vulnerable to potentially tens of thousands of pounds of student debt,” said Peter Meredith-Smith, RCN Wales associate director for employment relations.
“As we already are facing issues regarding workforce planning and recruitment in the Welsh NHS, removing this vital funding could potentially prove to be fatal to the staffing levels our health service requires to thrive – acting as a barrier to those who would otherwise wish to become a qualified nurse,” he said.
In response, a spokeswoman for the Welsh government said: “We are committed to making sure that finance is not a barrier to a career in nursing.
“The removal of bursaries in England raises a number of implications for Wales that we are considering – including cross border flow issues. As confirmed in the debate, the health secretary will be making a statement on future plans in Wales in the autumn.”