The chancellor, George Osborne, announced in November’s 2015 spending review that bursaries for student nurses, midwives and allied health professionals are to be axed in 2017.
This is expected to save the Treasury £800m a year, but could spell disaster for the NHS, which is already stretched to breaking point by staff shortages. Some cynics have speculated that these cuts are intended to push the NHS past the brink, so it can be privatised and sold off.
The proposed cuts have been met with vocal opposition, but supporters claim these measures might in fact cure the NHS’s chronic nursing shortage. By lifting the cap on the amount of training places the government can afford to make available, up to 10,000 more students could be allowed to enter the system.
And one could argue that working for the NHS is a fulfilling vocation that’s worth the upheaval, sacrifice and cost?
Everybody pays tuition fees so why not nursing students?
The huge demand to study nursing isn’t expected to drop with the introduction of fees and loans, with up to 10 people currently applying for each of the 20,000 training places available each year.
The trouble is, student nurses and midwives are expected to undertake clinical placements during non-term time, which means they have little time to do paid work. While other university students take part-time jobs to support themselves, this really isn’t a viable option for nurses on such a challenging and intensive course.
With the cost of living rising, bursaries are a lifeline for student nurses, who would otherwise need to take out loans to pay their tuition fees and living costs. This could leave them with up to £65,000 of debt!
Should bursaries be seen as an investment in our health and wellbeing, rather than a publicly funded cost?
There’s also a fear that a fees and loans system will reduce diversity by creating a barrier to entry for people from poorer backgrounds and those looking to change career. Midwifery traditionally attracts mature students, many of whom are already burdened with debt from a first degree.
It’s hard to predict whether a future lack of funding will discourage people from training for a career in the NHS, but we know the current situation is unsustainable.
Shortages in nursing and midwifery are pushing staff to the point of burn-out, which raises serious questions about whether the safest and best care is being consistently delivered.
Axing bursaries is a high-risk gamble and could lead to greater costs in the long term, but could it also mean the NHS won’t have to rely on agency staff quite so much in future? Only time will tell…
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