Ministers could end free university education for student nurses in a bid to boost the numbers joining the NHS workforce, under proposals put forward by national education bodies.
It has been reported in recent weeks that the Treasury is considering changes to the £5bn education and training budget held by Health Education England as part of next month’s comprehensive spending review.
Nursing Times understands one proposal being considered could see an end to the free education for nursing and midwives, with students expected to take out loans to cover the cost of their tuition.
“It would also allow numbers to expand from where numbers are today and prevent some of the contractions that haven’t been very helpful”
It would also allow universities to create additional places, rather than be dependent on the numbers commissioned by Health Education England each year.
Moving to a loans-based system would mean more cash support for students than the existing grant and NHS bursary scheme, but mean students would have substantial debts after leaving university.
As previously reported by Nursing Times, the Council of Deans of Health and Universities UK already favour the idea, saying the current system leaves the NHS dependent on what it can afford which contributes to recurrent workforce shortages.
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Following the Francis report demand for nurses increased by 21,000 in just 12 months, with NHS trusts recruiting almost 6,000 nurses from overseas up to September 2014.
Dame Professor Jessica Corner, chair of the Council of Deans of Health, confirmed the council had asked the government to make changes to the existing system, which she said was “fragile and vulnerable” to service pressures.
She added: “The current system of workforce planning attempts to estimate the precise numbers of nurses, midwives and allied health professionals that are going to be needed in three years’ time, and what we know is that it is almost impossible to do that and creates inflexible outputs years later.
“We think this would potentially smooth that out so that you don’t have that ebb and flow which doesn’t correspond to what the NHS needs,” she said. “It would also allow numbers to expand from where numbers are today and prevent some of the contractions that haven’t been very helpful.”
“The existing grants based system is unable to meet the costs of increasing student numbers to meet national need”
Dame Jessica added that nursing students currently “suffer quite a lot of hardship” because the bursary scheme was “relatively underfunded”, compared to other students with loans.
“There is an advantage to them in terms of actually being able to live on a maintenance loan worth up to 38% more, depending on whether you live in London or not, and that is not an insignificant increase.”
She said the NHS could consider paying back the loan of nurses who committed to a set period of time and also stressed that the plans were not about getting rid of Health Education England.
“You would want to retain a Health Education England body to be the system steward and have oversight and intelligent modelling of the workforce which is what they do for medicine, pharmacy and dentistry already,” she said. “That is a very important role.”
Universities UK echoed Dame Jessica’s comments in its submission to the spending review.
It said: “The existing grants based system is unable to meet the costs of increasing student numbers to meet national need. The proposed change would allow for a sustainable increase in student numbers.”
It added that students would receive more support and the change would help tackle a growing funding gap of between 8% and 12% for universities providing nursing courses.