Nurses form the backbone of the NHS – they’re often the first person you have contact with in the health service when you’re born and the last member of staff who attends to you when you die.
Being a nurse is no walk in the park – a majority of nurses in the NHS work 12-hour shifts regularly. Amid an unprecedented shortage of staff, nurses are constantly being asked to do more, with record numbers being off sick from stress last year.
And they do all of this for the privilege of an average salary of little more than £30,000 a year; starting pay is £22,000, well below the national average.
You’d think to resolve the nursing recruitment crisis, the government would do all it could to make the profession a more desirable one to work in.
Instead, it is doing just the opposite as it aims to scrap bursaries for student nurses from September of next year.
At the moment, student nurses do not have to pay any tuition fees and they can apply for non-repayable bursaries of up to £4,191, of which £1,000 is not means-tested.
If bursaries are scrapped, however, they will have to pay full tuition fees and living expenses, which, if students cannot afford these costs, must be funded by loans. This could mean nurses would begin their careers with up to £50,000 of debt.
These untenable changes will not only saddle some of society’s most important workers with a mountain of debt, but they will also put further pressure on an already strained NHS as the recruitment crisis worsens.
That’s why Unite joined Unison, NUS and the RCN yesterday (May 26) in its latest bid to stop the government’s proposals, as student nurses descended on Westminster to lobby their MPs.
Unite member and student nurse Danielle Tiplady explained to UNITElive why bursaries were so important.
“Student nurses work incredibly hard,” she said. “I’m on a placement at the moment doing 46 hours a week. I do nights, weekends – there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for me to take on another job to support myself. The bursary is a lifeline for me and all student nurses.”
She pointed to a new economic analysis commissioned by the RCN and NUS which shows that the government’s planned overhaul of bursaries, which also support those studying midwifery, physiotherapy, speech and language therapy, podiatry, radiography, dietetics, occupational health, and other allied professions, will worsen the NHS staffing crisis.
The analysis concluded that the 71 per cent increase in student costs after the bursary system is scrapped would entail a 6 per cent drop in student intake – which would translate into 2,000 fewer graduates each year.
The analysis also found that the roughly £500m the government says it will save will be totally wiped out by rising agency staff and overseas recruitment costs resulting from fewer students in the UK entering the profession.
“As a nursing student and a soon to be nurse, I’ve learned to listen to evidence in order to better patient safety,” Tiplady said as she urged the government to consider the latest analysis. “Jeremy Hunt, as health secretary, should learn to do the same. It’s his job. He needs to start listening to the evidence.”
Labour MP for Easington Grahame Morris, himself a former NHS worker, agreed.
“The thing that I find most disappointing as something with a science background is that the health secretary Jeremy Hunt is ignoring the evidence that suggests that this scheme works,” he said. “It’s been very successful in recruiting good quality nurse trainees to enter the profession – it has borne fruit. And to scrap it now seems incredibly risky in terms of the impact it will have on patients and the service.
“It’s important that we protect the bursary system if we are to ensure that we have a proper structure with recruitment and career progression for our nurses because they are the engines of the NHS,” Morris added.
Morris was among several Labour MPs who came out to support the campaign and meet with student nurses to discuss what’s at stake as the government moves to scrap nursing bursaries.
Labour MP for York Central Rachael Maskell highlighted the difficulties that student nurses face.
“We know that student nurses already work incredibly hard,” she said. “They go onto the wards and do a full day’s work. They don’t have time to earn extra money like other students because of the hours they have, including coursework on top of a full day’s work. It’s hard graft.
“The government simply doesn’t understand the impact scrapping bursaries will have on student finances. Students have to travel to a placement that’s often quite far and they have to get up very early in the morning. In future, they’ll have to pay for that travel as well.”
Maskell hit out against the government’s argument that its proposals are cost-neutral.
“If you add up all these additional costs, nursing students will actually be put further into debt than other students,” she said.
Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe called the government’s plan to abolish nursing bursaries “a ticking time-bomb for the NHS.”
‘Worsened health outcomes’
“If bursaries are abolished, the NHS will go through a continual workforce crisis which will mean worsened health outcomes for our entire nation,” he argued.
“Health is the single most important factor in any country’s welfare – if we aren’t healthy, we aren’t able to work, we aren’t to produce, we aren’t able to enjoy our lives,” Jarrett-Thorpe added. “So health has to be at the centre of what we do for a productive economy and a productive society.”
The government’s plans, Jarrett-Thorpe argued, are entirely ideological.
“This is only happening in England – in Scotland they’re not doing this, in Northern Ireland they’re not doing this, in Wales they’re not doing this. So there are proven examples where having a successful and funded bursary programme for health professionals actually does work.
Jarrett-Thorpe noted that yesterday’s lobby was only the beginning in Unite’s campaign against abolishing bursaries.
“Unite, together with the other health unions and the NUS are at the forefront of a major and ongoing campaign to push the government into reversing its stance on funding bursaries,” he explained.
“Unite will also be supporting a march on June 4, and we’ll be adding our weight to the consultation that the government has put out which closes on June 17. We’re also going to continue harrying Labour MPs, Conservative MPs, SNP MPs, Lib-Dem MPs – all of them – to get them to change the government’s mind on this.”
Find out the latest about the Bursary or Bust campaign here.
And you can sign Danielle Tiplady’s petition – which as of writing has received more than 100,000 signatures – here.
Pic by Mark Thomas