The government made a huge gamble when it removed the student bursary – and unfortunately it has not paid off.
The latest figures show that, so far, there is an 8% drop in the number of nursing students placed on a course for the 2017 September intake compared to this time last year.
Experts in favour of removing the bursary claimed that the huge oversubscription of students wanting to train to become nurses could be a cash cow for the treasury and universities. The government could save the money it used to fund student places. And, no longer limited by the central funding of a set number of places, universities could grow their student nurse numbers and charge a couple of grand more per student for essentially the same course. Win, win…
Unions, student bodies and even some universities – as well as of course us at Nursing Times – all argued that this was a huge risk.
What if removing the bursary made training to be a nurse less attractive, or worse, financially impossible for many? The number of applications could fall, and the workforce crisis we find ourselves in would deepen further.
All concerns were batted away by government, Health Education England and other so-called “experts”.
Even when university applications were seen to be down, many “experts” tried to reassure us that this still meant places would be filled – their argument was that there were always too many applicants for every course, so there was enough of a buffer to take a hit and still fill courses.
Today, though, it now seems they maybe should have paid attention to the warnings. For these were not the random ramblings of people hellbent on promoting doom and gloom – but a pretty accurate prediction of a future, which has now become our reality.
Now we discover that many universities are struggling to fill – and therefore fund – their courses, and that entry standards are inevitably under pressure to slide.
The result? Universities will potentially race to the bottom with the number of UCAS points they will accept for someone to enter a nursing degree. I have heard of some universities accepting critically low grades just to fill places and ensure they can run their nursing course.
For the first time ever, many universities are having to go through the clearing process to fill their nursing courses, and some are reportedly scraping the bottom of the barrel with those they are selecting.
Universities will get more money per student nurse than under the old system where the government paid the fees, so some can afford to take a reduction in the volume of nurses training through their institutions. But realistically, for how long is that sustainable? When will it get to such a point that universities will stop running unprofitable courses and we have no means of training anywhere near enough nurses for what we need, and we damage our workforce pipeline even more than it has been already?
“We need better workforce planning and stronger recruitment”
At a time when there is a shortage of nurses, we need better workforce planning and stronger recruitment of student nurses. What we don’t need is people recruited into the profession who have not been selected on the basis of their talent, interest and values. Those people might not stay, and even if they do, they may be the sort of people that do not make good nurses.
Are we so desperate for nurses that we will hire anyone to become a nurse, regardless of how they behave as an ambassador? Well the answer is sadly yes, it seems.
It is a huge shame for the profession that cheered itself so heartily at becoming an all-graduate entry profession just a few years ago in 2013, to be so cheapened in this way. An even bigger shame is that the government decided to gamble with the future of the nursing profession – and therefore the safety of patients – and lost.