Chancellor George Osborne has confirmed that nurse education will in future be funded via a system of loans, rather than bursaries.
The move, announced today in the government’s comprehensive spending review, had been expected in the wake of revelations yesterday about a major cash injection for the NHS in England.
Today’s spending review confirmed that the government would give NHS England a real-terms budget increase of £3.8bn in 2016-17, representing a frontloading of the extra £8bn it has promised the health service by 2020.
The chancellor said the total NHS England budget would rise from £101bn now to £120bn by 2020. Meanwhile, he added that the rest of the Department of Health budget would fall by 25% – likely to mean less money for bodies such as Public Health England and Health Education England.
In his statement to the Commons today, Mr Osborne said: “We have been increasing spending on the NHS in England. In this Spending Review, we do so again.
“We will work with our health professionals to deliver the very best value for that money. That means £22bn of efficiency savings across the service,” he said.
“We’ll replace direct funding with loans for new students – so we can abolish this self-defeating cap”
“It means a 25% cut in the Whitehall budget of the Department for Health. It means modernising the way we fund students of healthcare,” he added.
Mr Osborne promoted the controversial move from bursaries to loans by arguing that it would potentially allow universities to fund more places on courses, rather than being constrained by money being made available for places by Health Education England, as is currently the case.
The Council of Deans of Health and Universities UK, which lobbied the government for the change, have both previously argued that loans would give them more flexibility, potentially enabling universities to run more places on their nursing courses.
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However, unions have argued the opposite, saying that saddling nursing students with large loans to pay off in future will act as a disincentive to many.
In his statement, Mr Osborne said: “Today there is a cap on student nurses; over half of all applicants are turned away, and it leaves hospitals relying on agencies and overseas staff.
“So we’ll replace direct funding with loans for new students – so we can abolish this self-defeating cap and create up to 10,000 new training places in this parliament,” he told MPs.
It is understood that the move to loans is unlikely to affect any students currently in the middle of courses. The Council of Deans has told Nursing Times that it expects the change it will affect new students from 2017-18.
“There is one part of our NHS that has been neglected for too long – and that’s mental health”
The government currently spends around £800m a year on student nurse bursaries and tuition fees. This compares to around £3.5bn spent on junior doctor salaries.
Regarding overall funding for the NHS, the chancellor suggested the additional money announced today would be sufficient to pump-prime the new models of care proposed in NHS England’s five-year plan for the health service – the Five-Year Forward View.
“This fully funds the Five-Year Forward View that the NHS itself put forward as the plan for its future,” he said.
But, as widely expected, he added that in return for the funding, the government would also expect to see a “brilliant NHS available seven-days a week” – referring to the policy outlined earlier this year to boost access to primary care during out-of-hours periods and improve hospital outcomes at weekends.
Meanwhile, the chancellor also announced extra investment in mental health services, including cognitive behavioural therapy.
He said: “There is one part of our NHS that has been neglected for too long – and that’s mental health.
“In the last parliament we made a start by laying the foundations for equality of treatment, with the first ever waiting time standards for mental health,” he said.
“Today, we build on that with £600m additional funding – meaning that by 2020 significantly more people will have access to talking therapies, perinatal mental health services, and crisis care,” he added.
More details, reaction and analysis to follow on the Nursing Times website.