The health secretary has stated that there will be a “proper” consultation on the government’s plans to replace student nurse bursaries with a system of loans.
Jeremy Hunt also said there would be facilities put in place to ensure that people seeking to study nursing as a second degree would still be eligible for a loan, in recognition that the profession tended to attract more mature students.
“We are going to have a consultation, we are going to listen carefully”
The reform of funding for student nurse and midwife education was outlined in the government’s autumn spending statement, delivered by chancellor George Osborne at the end of November.
Although backed by universities, the move has met with resistance from many in the profession – leading to a petition being signed by over 100,000 people and a demonstration in Whitehall by students on Wednesday.
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Mr Hunt defended the decision to scrap bursaries while speaking earlier this week at the chief nursing officer for England’s summit in Birmingham.
He repeated Mr Osborne’s argument that moving to loans would allow more nurses to be trained because universities would not be constrained by limits on bursary funding from Health Education England to decide place numbers on courses.
He also claimed that fears – put forward by unions among others – that loans would dissuade people from studying nursing had not been realised for other professions.
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However, Mr Hunt admitted that the coalition government had made a mistake in previously cutting the number of student nurses places commissioned.
In his keynote speech on Wednesday, the health secretary said: “Being very blunt, I don’t want to make the mistake that we made five years ago at this stage in the last parliament when nurse training places were cut, when we know that we are going to need more nurses going forward.
“These plans – we will do everything we can to work with you and with stakeholders like the Royal College of Nursing to get the policy detail right,” he said. “We know if we get this right, we can see an increase in people from poorer backgrounds going into nursing.”
In addition, he addressed concerns that people who already had degrees in other subjects would fall foul of rules that prevented them from taking out a second loan if they wanted to retrain as a nurse.
“We know that we need to make an exception for nursing because so many people go into nursing as a second degree. So we need to make an exception and make sure the loan system is available to people who have done a first degree – and we’ll do that,” he said.
Mr Hunt added: “If we get this right, we will see the possibility of a 10% increase in nurse training places this parliament, compared to the last parliament… and – according to HEE projections – 23,000 more nurses in post at the end of this parliament than compared to today.
“So the result of that will be better nursing care for our patients and that’s why although it is a difficult decision – it is the right thing to do,” he told delegates at the CNO summit.
“I hope the profession understands that we have a system that isn’t working at the moment”
But in the following question and answer session, Unison head of nursing Gail Adams said the move would lead to nurses graduating in 2020 with debts of £50,000, and that the plan “really does need some further thinking”.
Ms Adams acknowledged that the current bursary system “was not perfect by any size, shape or form”, but it acted as an incentive for “wider participation” from poorer and also more ethnically diverse backgrounds.
“I am genuinely worried about the impact this decision will have on women and in particular making sure our profession… continues to have the rich tapestry of groups from the most diverse areas,” she said.
“If you are a Muslim student, your faith precludes you from taking on commissioned debt. That hasn’t been taken into account. And all of the positive work that we are trying to do with regard to BME [black minority ethnic] staff could be undermined,” she warned.
In response, Mr Hunt said: “We do recognise that nurses are different – we are having more mature students going into nursing, that we need to think about the structures and they won’t be exactly the same as they are for other students.
“But I also hope that the profession understands that we have a system that isn’t working at the moment. We aren’t training enough people to be nurses and we have this huge vacancy rate inside the NHS and huge numbers of agency nurses and nurses coming from overseas – we need to find a way through this that addresses your concerns,” said the health secretary.
“We are going to have a consultation, we are going to listen carefully…but I think it also reasonable to look at the impact of tuition fees in other sectors where many of these concerns were raised and actually people’s worst fears weren’t realised,” he said.
He added: “We need to make sure it’s the same with nursing. So we will have a proper consultation with full debates in parliament.”
Hunt promises ‘proper’ consultation on bursary plans