While one particular ‘B-word’ has dominated the national agenda for what seems like an eternity, over the past week Nursing Times readers have been much more interested in another topic beginning with the same letter. I speak, of course, about Brexit and bursaries.
The scrapping of the bursary for student nurses in England has probably been the one issue to unite everyone in nursing and healthcare generally I have spoken to over the last few years.
“The government is in something of a cul de sac of its own making on this one”
I cannot recall having met anyone who thought it was a good idea. Perhaps I’m talking to the wrong people, but I somehow doubt it.
I am sure the government would like the debate to quieten down until – it desperately hopes – the next batch of UCAS figures on university applications show improvement or the much-trumped new routes into nursing – apprenticeships and associates – actually prove as popular as confidently predicted by ministers.
That, of course, is not quite what has happened this month. First of all, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced plans last week to increase bursaries for student nurses in the country to £10,000 a year by 2020-21.
That’s right – increase, not reduce or scrap. As a guide to how this news took the social media world by storm, my tweet about the announcement was seen by over 116,000 people and over 3,000 engaged about it in some way.
Then, this week, the Department of Health and Social Care has been forced to respond to a bursary-related petition set up on the UK Government and Parliament website, after it received 10,000 signatures of support (numbers are currently just under 35,000).
Under its own rules, the government is required to respond to in writing to petitions that pass this threshold. If signatures go over 100,000 it must be ‘considered’ for a debate in Parliament.
Created by Labour councillor and health campaigner Liz Savage, the petition in question naturally calls for the reinstatement of the bursary. She was concerned its removal was exacerbating the nurse recruitment crisis, said Ms Savage, which is not surprising given the statistical evidence.
The government policy to replace bursaries for student nurses in England with a loans system came into effect in August 2017.
Latest figures show applications to study nursing in the country have fallen by 32% since 2016, the last year students were able to receive free education.
In addition, the number of people accepted onto a nursing course in England has dropped by 8% over the same period, while nursing vacancies across the NHS have risen to more than 41,000.
“The government namechecked the usual suspects”
In its response, the government namechecked the usual suspects – associates and apprenticeships again – and also reminded us that it was investing in a “golden hello” scheme for postgraduate students in struggling specialties, which was unexpectedly revealed during a debate in May this year by health minister Stephen Barclay. However, the scheme is yet to start.
Unfortunately, the government is in something of a cul de sac of its own making on this one. The nature of politics pretty much means it cannot backtrack on the policy, particularly as it’s almost certainly already spent the bursary money on something else.
Well, just for once, ministers need to break with this tradition. Perhaps some of the money promised for the NHS on the Brexit bus could go towards fixing some of the damage before it’s too late for the nursing workforce. Bring back the bursary.