All future nursing and midwifery students look set to be offered a combination of a bursary and a loan, under latest government plans.
However unions have criticised the proposals, warning that students will still be forced to take on extra jobs to support themselves and could be left to pay off massive debts for years.
Department of Health civil servants have recommended to ministers that all students should receive a non-means tested bursary of £1,000 together with a means tested bursary, the value of which will depend on where they live. They will also be offered a reduced rate loan.
It would mean a student on a 30-week course outside of London could receive a maximum of £5,915 in support per year of which £3,591 would come from a combination of bursaries and £2,324 from a loan.
A student in London could receive a total of £7,391, of which £4,128 would come from bursaries and £3,263 from loans.
Meanwhile a student living at home with their parents could receive a total of £4,907, with £3,163 coming from bursaries and £1,744 from loans.
The DH said: “We currently expect that the earliest changes may come into effect is for students entering training from September 2012.”
The changes will replace the current mismatch in the student support system in which diploma students receive a non-means tested bursary and degree students receive a means tested bursary.
It will also end the drawn out process of reform to the bursary system for healthcare students. The need for reform was given added impetus with the move to graduate-only entry to nursing. But there has been little movement over the past 18 months, following a three-month Department of Health consultation on the issue in 2009, which set out 11 possible options.
The DH has this week published the findings from that consultation together with an impact assessment on the costs of the options for change, including its own preferred option.
The DH report said the two options most preferred by consultation respondents were the system the government wants to introduce – paying a means-tested bursary with a small non-means tested element, together with a non-means tested loan –– or to employ students in the NHS.
Despite its popularity, the government rejected the student employment, as it would cost more than the present system.
Instead it whittled the 11 consultation options down to three final options that “would maintain the average spend on student support at current levels”.
These were to do nothing; to pay all students a combination of non-means tested and means tested bursary, but no loan; or to introduce the bursary and loan combination that was subsequently recommended to ministers.
However the union Unison described government’s plans as “a missed opportunity to improve the financial plight of nursing students”.
Unison head of nursing Gail Adams said: “We have long argued that health care student training is different from other academic courses, because they spend so much time on clinical placements. Alongside their studies, they work long days and night and weekend shifts on the wards.
“The average age of a student nurse is 29 and over 40% of them have children or other dependents. Changes to loan repayments system from 2012 will also mean that students start paying back their loans the minute they graduate. We are deeply concerned that this will condemn them into debt for years.”
Chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing Peter Carter also criticised the government’s chosen option.
He said: “We know that many students are dropping out already due to financial problems, and now that they have added debt we fear that the situation may only get worse.
“We are disappointed that after two years of negotiation, this settlement will not provide a solution for the problems we already have, let alone stave off the problems of the future. Many nursing students will still need to take second and even third jobs just to make ends meet.
“The combination of a small universal bursary, a small means tested bursary and a small entitlement for a loan means that some students will undoubtedly struggle to make ends meet.”