Why scrapping nursing bursaries is a disaster - a student nurse speaks

George Osborne announced the scrapping of nurse training bursaries in this week's Spending Review. He seems to have forgotten why nursing bursaries were introduced in the first place.

Louise Williamson
27 November 2015

As a student nurse, I have seen the financial struggles of the NHS and its staff shortages first hand. So I understand why it needs more money if it is to continue being the high standard service it always has been.

What I don’t understand is why this extra money has to come from the pockets of student healthcare professionals. Healthcare students already work 37.5 hours a week on 8-12 week placements without pay, working as hard and often doing the same jobs as others who do get paid. They do so with minimal complaints – and continue to do so for years – because the main reason they are there is to care for others, rather than for the money.

But making healthcare students pay to work – as Osborne’s move effectively does – is just taking advantage.

Instead, we should be supporting them in their studies Long hours mean they can’t take on extra, paid work, like other students.

Instead, Osborne is telling these students that in the future, not only will they have to continue working for free, but will finish with around £50,000 worth of debt, that they will probably be paying off for the rest of their lives.

It’s just too much. Taking money from students to give to the NHS may be a quick fix for the headlines – but it will store up serious problems in the future, including an even greater shortage of nurses.

My fellow students tell me that they would not have been able to study nursing and other healthcare professions if it wasn’t for the NHS bursary. It’s particularly true for mature students, who are prevalent in healthcare subjects. Many of have left full time jobs to pursue healthcare. Some have started out as Health Care Assistants before deciding to progress to be a registered nurse. The bursary is what helped them manage their loss of income. Someone who decides to become a nurse – whether younger or older - needs be supported in their decisions to enter a healthcare profession, rather than being faced with a lifetime of debt that they will probably never be able to pay back.

I’ve also talked to people considering doing healthcare as a second degree, who’ve told me that if there were no bursaries and student finance was all that was on offer, they simply wouldn’t go – many are already still carrying the massive debt from their first degree The thought of adding more debt is just too much.

What seems to have been forgotten is why NHS bursaries were used in the first place. The first Nursing degree at University started in 1970, two years after the NHS Bursary was originally created. Although the NHS bursary was first made as a way to pay unqualified staff a wage, it has since changed into the bursary we know today that supports students studying at University.

When it became compulsory to study Nursing at University, there was concern at the time that the cost of University would deter those from lower income backgrounds from studying Nursing, leading to a shortage. This is why student nurses get the NHS bursary, so that those from lower income backgrounds get the same opportunities as everyone else, in an attempt to deal with the shortage of nurses. Getting rid of the NHS bursary now just creates the same problems now that we were trying to avoid when the degree first became compulsory.

There is also the importance of the placement reimbursement that is offered with the NHS bursary, where students are compensated for travel and accommodation costs if they have to do placements in different cities to the one they are studying in, as part of their course. This allows university to offer a wider range of specialist placements – it’s particularly prevalent in radiotherapy, for example. So if the NHS bursary is cut, and no placement reimbursement is offered, the amount of places people can be sent out to is greatly decreased.

George Osborne tells us that by getting rid of the bursary, we’ll get rid of the cap on the number of students able to study healthcare subjects, so there will be more students. But if students can’t afford to study nursing, or go far for placements, then that will limit the amount of students that can study. And are we sure that if they do take on more students, Universities will be able to provide appropriate staff to maintain a high level of education? We risk swapping quality for quantity – and undermining the crucial goal of training enough nurses, to a high enough standard, to give the care we need.

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