The abolition of bursaries will means that in a few years, nurses, midwives, students of radio-graphy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy in England, along with allied health professionals may be starting their careers with more than £60,000 in debt.
For many mature students that figure will be even higher. The bursary was an acknowledgement that, with practical training requirements, working part time to complete a degree is far harder, often impossible, for these students. It was also testament to our need for them – latest estimates suggest we need 15,000 more nurses. And as students have to spend many training hours working for the NHS, they’ll effectively be paying to work – a new low in this government’s already dreadful treatment of public-sector workers.
As I joined student nurses and their supporters on the Bursary or Bust march in London in January, I heard moving tales of the work those students do – comforting a mother who’s just given birth to a stillborn baby, sitting through the early hours of the morning with a 90-year-old fearing death. As one student said, when patients call “nurse, nurse”, they aren’t thinking of the person who arrives at their bedside as a “trainee”. They want, need and get help.
The government says its plans will create up to 10,000 more training places, but the claim that students will rush to courses they will leave with a mountain of debt to go into a taxing, albeit rewarding, career that’s not highly paid, makes no sense. No doubt, the sense of vocation and dedication will mean some still take on the burden but, for many, the numbers just won’t add up.
This proposal on bursaries and fees comes when the NHS is under more pressure than ever. Funding is grossly inadequate: the King’s Fund reports that public health spending, now at 7.3% of GDP, is to fall to 6.6% by 2020 under current spending plans – when the ageing population and public-health issues such as obesity and societal stress are lifting demand for health services. Even adding 1.2% of private health spending, Britain’s total spend is well below that of France and Germany, which sits at around 11% of GDP.
Far too much of funds is going to private, for-profit companies through disastrous private finance initiative schemes that have left trusts with grossly expensive, often inadequate facilities, and the privatisation of services that is shovelling public money into private hands (and all too often into the nearest tax haven).
The NHS should respect and trust health professionals and give them the time, space, training and pay to do their job to their full capacity. There should be a properly funded, publicly owned and run NHS, with the absolute maintenance (and restoration) of the principle of services being free at the point of use.
It’s deplorable that we have a health secretary apparently backing a US-style private healthcare system. These words – but, even more so, his actions – demonstrate that Jeremy Hunt cannot be trusted as a custodian of our NHS. The British public is waking up to the danger; public support on the Bursary or Bust march and the junior doctors’ pickets was clear and vocal.
This government won the support of only 24% of eligible voters at the 2015 election – that’s no mandate to destroy our NHS or treat our healthcare workers with disrespect. Our current and future nurses and doctors must continue to be supported, and their struggle for respectful and fair treatment must be acknowledged. We need a government that will protect, cherish and invest in our NHS, in its staff, its facilities and its services.
Natalie Bennett is leader of the Green Party