For many years, most UK residents entering the nursing profession have been assisted with free tuition and – in many cases – with additional financial support to help them survive while studying. However, the current Conservative government announced last year that it plans to do away with the bursary system, replacing it with tuition fees and loans to cover living expenses.
The current system provides free tuition and £1,000 to every qualifying candidate – plus up to £4,442 per year as a means-tested support grant (rising to £5,513 in London). And it’s not just nurses who have benefitted – the system has also helped train chiropodists and podiatrists, radiotherapists, radiographers, physiotherapists, midwives, speech and language therapists, dietitians, occupational therapists and those on certain dental courses.
Why is this happening?
The government hopes to save £800m of public money by shifting the cost to nurses’ future earnings. Chancellor George Osbourne also claims that the current system places a limit on the number of nurses entering the workplace – and that doing away with bursaries could lead to more qualified candidates becoming available to the NHS.
What has the reaction been like?
Mr Osbourne’s logic is disputed by the Royal College of Nursing, with general secretary and chief executive Janet Davis saying: ‘Anything that makes people worse off and puts people off from becoming nurses, and reduces the link between student nurses and the NHS, would be a big loss to our society and put us in a precarious position.’
There is also concern that many people studying nursing – and midwifery in particular – are doing so as a second career – and that they may already be saddled with debts from another first degree.
Louise Silverton Director for Midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives said: ‘The consequences of scrapping bursaries for student midwives and nurses is detrimental to an already understaffed midwifery profession.
‘Women with children and those who already have a first degree will be particularly hit hard if these proposals go ahead as many of these women already make up a large proportion of our current midwifery student base.
‘Currently we have a diverse body of students who come from all walks of life; many are mature, not school leavers, who already have substantial caring and financial commitments.’
So what will it cost now?
It has been suggested that tuition fees for student nurses will be priced at up to £9,000 per year – the level at which fees are currently capped for other students in England. Some courses may be cheaper, but it seems unlikely that a nursing degree will be any less expensive to deliver than a more academic course.
Most medical schools already charge the maximum amount for those studying to become doctors. And then there are maintenance loans for living costs, which are currently set at £8,200 for those in full-time study – rising to £10,702 in the capital.
So for those taking the most-common kind of three-year degree course that means a debt of £51,600 – or nearer £60,000 if studying in London. These hypothetical figures are based on the current situation for students from England – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have more favourable deals for their students and may take the same approach for student nurses.
And how will I repay it?
As with student loans, repayments only begin once workers are earning above a certain salary (currently £21k). This is usually taken directly from your pay packet each month. As an example, those on a Band 5 salary of £21.7k in the NHS (the level most new nurses start at) would repay £5.25 per month. Obviously this rises as pay increases.
Is this definitely going to happen?
The proposed changes are currently out to consultation and – as expected – there has been plenty of opposition. The current administration and the coalition that preceded it have not been afraid to push unpopular policies through, but the climbdown over cuts to disabled people’s benefits earlier this year gives hope to some campaigners. A mass lobby of parliament is being organised by nursing and allied unions for May 25, but there is no definite timescale for a decision.
There are proposals for a new Nursing Associate role to be introduced for those wishing to enter the profession without going to university. It would involve learning on the job through an apprenticeship-style scheme, which could then lead to a foundation degree.
The Gov.uk website says: ‘The new nursing support role is expected to work alongside healthcare support workers and fully qualified nurses to deliver hands on care, ensuring patients continue to get the compassionate care they deserve.
‘Nursing associates will support nurses to spend more time using their specialist training to focus on clinical duties and take more of a lead in decisions about patient care.’
It’s expected that nursing associates could progress to become full registered nurses with further study.
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