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Does an outbreak of cross-party MP harmony signal a change of tune over student bursaries?

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Wednesday was a day of firsts for me.

It marked my inaugural visit to the Houses of Parliament. A truly remarkable building with all the grandeur you would expect from a structure in which so many important decisions are made.

While I was there, I heard for the first time a debate in which politicians from different parties were more or less singing from the same hymn sheet.

And the lyrics that united them were those you have been singing out loud for some time: student nurses are struggling and something needs to change.

“The college wants to see the government bring back a bursary”

The debate was led by Labour MP Eleanor Smith, who only finished her 40-year career as a nurse last year and whose daughter has just qualified as a nurse.

The aim was to convince the government to reinvest in higher education for nurses following the removal of bursaries in 2016, which Ms Smith said saved the state £1.2bn.

However, it was made clear that even the bursaries did not provide enough support and a new system needed to be put in place.

The Royal College of Nursing submitted a document of costed options for future funding structures, all of which involve putting £1bn a year back into higher education for nurses.

The college wants to see the government introduce a new and improved bursary or “forgivable loans” that would be paid back by the state in return for service.

Ahead of the debate a group of student nurses met MPs to share their stories of hardship, exhaustion and frustration.

Postgraduate adult nursing student, Rosie Schofield, who was still eligible for the bursary, told me how she was diagnosed with cervical cancer during her first year.

She had time off to receive care and when she resumed her course, she struggled with the side-effects of treatment so was unable to take on a part-time job.

But because her bursary allowance was not enough to live on, Ms Schofield had to use all her savings and rely on handouts from her family and hardship funds from her university just to get by.

Meanwhile, Grace Paige, who is in the final year of a mental health nursing degree and also received the bursary, revealed how she and her husband have had to leave their rented property and move back in with their respective parents while she studies because they could not make ends meet.

The couple have a four-year-old son who lives with Ms Paige and the family are only able to spend weekends together.

And second-year postgraduate adult nursing student Megan Fletcher, who missed out on the bursary, is working an additional 13-25 hours as a bank healthcare assistant alongside her clinical placements for extra cash to live on.

Opening the debate, Ms Smith set out the case for a rethink of the current funding policy. Unsurprisingly she had backing from her Labour colleagues including shadow health minister Justin Madders, nurse MP Karen Lee and MP Dr Paul Williams.

But what surprised me was that the Tory members present also expressed support for the cause and did not try to argue, undermine or get on the defensive – the behaviour we have come to expect from MPs responding to those from opposing parties.

“It was hard to distinguish who was in the red team and who was in the blue”

As Conservative MP John Howell put it: “It is wrong to approach this debate in an aggressive ‘them and us’ spirit. We all aim to increase the funding for nurses to an appropriate and proper level. I agree that nurses do a fantastic job.”

In fact, from the gallery it was hard to distinguish who was in the red team and who was in the blue.

Perhaps it helped that many of the MPs present had worked in the NHS themselves.

Consultant paediatrician Dr Caroline Johnson, who is also a Conservative MP, declared: “I do not think there is anybody in Westminster Hall today who would doubt the value of nursing or the importance of good nursing and nurse training.”

The result was that new health minister Stephen Hammond agreed to seriously consider the RCN’s proposals – the first time I have heard the government budge on its position since scrapping bursaries in 2016.

Of course, it’s still early days and in no way a firm commitment, but it’s a welcome step forward.

With nurse vacancies predicted to rise to 48,000 over the next five years, the time for playing politics with the future of the nursing workforce is over.

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