When the chancellor announced in the autumn that bursaries for student nurses, midwives and other professions, such as physiotherapists, were to be stopped, I’d assumed that the Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of Midwives and all other organisations that represent those affected had been fully consulted.
Sadly, this was not the case and, as a result, there was a hostile reaction. Social media was awash with comment and demonstrations soon arranged.
My initial reaction was incredulity. Why, amid all the problems that are besetting the health service – the biggest financial defi cit in its history, targets being routinely missed, huge concern over standards of care due to a shortage of staff, agency bills soaring as a result of poor workforce planning, junior doctors striking – would you pick a fight at this time with the very people that represent the future of the NHS?
As the row developed there were unanswered questions. For example, what was the position for people who already had a student loan? Following the concern expressed, the government said students with degrees in other disciplines could access the standard student support package for a second time. Surely it would have been better to have had this in place at the time of the original announcement, preventing any unnecessary anxiety?
I recently participated in judging the Student Nursing Times Awards and one hugely impressive candidate, who was a mature student with three children, said that without the bursary, she would not have been able to undertake the course.
George Osborne says loans will enable universities to increase the number of student nurses by an additional 10,000. The more I look into this figure, however, the more a different picture emerges.
I have spoken with a number of university deans, who believe the changes would be to the benefit of nursing. However, I have also participated in a question-time session at King’s College London. The event was attended by more than 100 students – it was a terrific initiative and the students were inspiring. However, the debate highlighted the number of questions that remain unanswered.
Misinformation and confusion over the proposals was a recurring theme. One student nurse was under the impression that newly qualified nurses would have to pay back £900 a year, whereas it is in fact £92 a year (£1.76p a week). Just think how different it would have been had a website been prepared with FAQs and a ready reckoner showing the repayment schedule. In fact, Martin Lewis, the distinguished financial journalist, estimates that most nurses will never have to pay off their loans, as nurses are on such low pay.
There is also the issue of placements and mentorship. Where are the additional 10,000 students going to have placements? The existing arrangements are under strain and there is a paucity of mentors.
I believe student loans could be a way forward but, in the absence of a decent narrative, we are caught in a classic standoff with polarised views and not much evidence of movement on either side.
The learning the government should take from this is to develop a better narrative and speak with those involved in future. Imposition rarely, if ever, works.
The last thing we need are disincentives to recruitment. We should be doing everything possible to attract applicants, as the country needs more nurses now than at any other time in its history.
Dr Peter Carter OBE is an independent management consultant, and the former general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing