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Fund our future nurses

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Since the removal of the NHS nursing bursary in England in 2016, applications to nursing courses have fallen by 38%.

During this period the number of students accepted into these courses has also dropped by 8%. This is at a time where there are nursing vacancies in England in excess of 41,000 with a predicted increase to 48,000 by 2023.

”The introduction of the student loans system has clearly not worked the way the government intended”

The introduction of the student loans system has clearly not worked the way the government intended. Sadly, the most significant drop off has been seen in mature students and those wishing to change career, who bring with them a wealth of life experience to the role of the nurse.

I am a mature student, who began my nurse education aged 30 after a previous career. I love nursing, I believe I am now doing what I was born to do. However, if I were not a student nurse in Scotland, where our tuition fees are paid for, and we are in receipt of the NHS nursing bursary, I would not be doing what I am now.

I could not afford to graduate encumbered with debt, so I would be doing something else, and to me now, that thought is a harrowing one. Can we afford to be losing any potential nurses? I would say no. So, we need to do something.

At present, student nursing funding is different across the other three nations. In Scotland, tuition fees are paid for and the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced an increase of the NHS nursing bursary from £6,578 per year to £8,100 for 2019/20 and £10,000 for 2020 and beyond.

In Wales, there are a variety of options; if students commit to working within Wales for two years following completion of their nursing degree, they are eligible for the NHS funding package. In this package, the NHS pays tuition fees, and students are eligible for a non-means tested grant of £1,000 and a means-tested bursary of up to £3,567 per year.

However, there are other means-tested additional allowances and maintenance loans available. If students do not commit to working within Wales for two years following graduation, they need to apply for student funding.

In Northern Ireland, the Department of Health pays tuition fees, and there is currently a non-means tested bursary of £5,165. However, there is uncertainty as to if this will continue and if so for how long, as Northern Ireland presently has no sitting government.

Although I am a nursing student in Scotland and feel privileged to be undertaking my nursing education in a country where our government have not only increased the bursary but increased the number of places for nursing students by 283 to over 4,000 for 2019/20, I consider myself part of the UK’s wider nursing community. For this reason, I cannot stand by and witness this lack of parity for my fellow nursing students.

Last year the Royal College of Nursing launched a campaign, conceived by the Students’ Committee and led by the RCN’s student members, calling on the government to #FundOurFuture Nurses. The campaign is asking for the government to put a minimum of £1bn back into nursing education in England.

So far, 100 student nurses have shared their stories of hardship under the new funding system and their videos on YouTube have received over 35,000 views. On Twitter, #FundOurFuture has reached over 8 million people and appeared in over 10,000 tweets.

More importantly, over 3,000 RCN members contacted their MPs, which totalled over 400 out of the 553 MPs in England. Of these MPs, 127 took action to #FundOurFuture Nurses.

In December, student members of the RCN lobbied MPs in Westminster to raise awareness of the pressures and financial difficulties many nursing students face. Following this, there was a debate in Westminster Hall led by Wolverhampton South West MP Eleanor Smith, a nurse by background. In response, health minister, Stephen Hammond, publicly committed to working with the RCN on its proposals to improve funding for nursing higher education.

The RCN commissioned London Economics to model two costed options for undergraduate nursing education in England. Option one proposes a universal tuition grant with a means-tested maintenance grant. In this model, all students would have their tuition fees paid for, similar to the old bursary system.

However, in addition, they would receive a means-tested maintenance grant of the same value they currently receive in the current loan model, which could be up to £20,252. Though unlike in the current loan system, as this is a grant, all students would graduate debt-free.

Option two proposes a forgivable tuition loan in return for public service, and a universal non-means tested maintenance grant. This maintenance grant has been calculated at £10,000 per year, bringing it in line with the increased NHS bursary that nursing and midwifery students in Scotland will receive by September 2020.

In this option, student nurses would take out a tuition loan; however, they are guaranteed a job for at least 10 years by the government. The government would pay down this debt; 30% after three years, 70% after seven and the debt is wholly wiped after 10 years, so long as they continue to work in public service in England.

Despite Stephen Hammond’s public declaration, and the #FundOurFuture campaign calling on health secretary Matt Hancock and NHS England’s chief executive Simon Stevens, to include funding for nursing higher education in the NHS Long Term Plan, when it was published in January 2019, no new money was made available for student nurse funding.

So, the battle is far from over. And this is why I ask that all nursing students from across the UK get behind the #FundOurFuture campaign for increased student funding for our English colleagues.

Also, I ask English nursing students to please share their stories of hardship, not only to improve the funding situation for yourselves but for the generations of nursing students to come.

The campaign for fairer funding for students in England may be a long one, but when we, the nursing community, unite our voices together for the common good, we can affect real change.

Fairer funding will lead to more nurses, which ultimately will allow us to provide better care for the communities we serve – the reason, I am certain, we all started our nursing journey.

Information about the #FundOurFuture Nurses campaign can be found on the RCN websiteClick here to read The #FundOurFuture Nurses report.

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