Nurses, midwives and allied health professionals (AHPs) form the bedrock of our nation’s healthcare. But their job is often thankless – they work long hours, for very little pay under incredibly stressful conditions.
As the NHS now faces a severe staff shortage crisis, with the agency worker bill ballooning out of control, recruiting and retaining has become doubly important, and it all starts with education.
NHS grants now fund initial education for nursing, midwives and AHP students, but the Council of Deans of Health and Universities UK have jointly called to reform this system and introduce student loans. The Council contends that grants do not adequately fund students’ education, and universities then have to make up the deficit.
“Students are not receiving enough financial support to meet their day to day costs of living and universities receive less for many of these courses than they actually cost to deliver, and less than the £9,000 fee that universities receive for other subjects,” said professor Steve West, chair of Universities UK’s Health Education and Research Policy Network, yesterday (June 30).
But Unite professional officer for education Ethel Rodrigues argues that student loans would only exacerbate the staff shortage problem, further burdening future nurses, midwives and AHPs with debt.
“Unite acknowledges that the current funding model has problems, which aren’t being thoroughly assessed,” said Rodrigues. “But we have grave concerns about introducing student loans, which we believe will only further dis-incentivise students from entering the field.”
Rodrigues explained how the significant number of student nurses, midwives and AHPs are mature students.
“Because most are mature students, this means they bring with them a wealth of life experience that enriches the profession,” she said. “At the same time, however, mature students are often accompanied with family and financial obligations. Having to take on additional debts to enter the profession becomes an added burden.”
Unison has also criticised the introduction of student loans, highlighting how the reform would likewise affect younger students.
“Even if their employer were to pay off an element of their student loan after several years of employment, the changes could well discourage young people from poorer backgrounds from entering the healthcare professions altogether,” said Unison head of nursing Gail Adams.
“It’s vital that the nursing and midwifery professions continue to reflect the society they care for,” he added. “The proposed changes risk it becoming an exclusive career option, simply for those whose families can afford it.”
Strengthen the system
Rodrigues noted that instead of rejecting the NHS grants system, it should be strengthened.
“Education costs should be audited to discover where these funding gaps exist and to determine the exact costs per head,” she said. “The government should then make up the deficit, not students themselves through loans.”
While professional education in other fields is often financed through loans, Rodrigues said that it’s not a system that can be transferred to lower-paid healthcare professions.
“For, say, engineering students, it might make sense, because professions in these fields are often well remunerated. But the pay rate for nurses is very small. Personally, I have student loans and I know how they work. You’re paying them off for years and years, and because of the interest, you end up paying two or three times the amount you borrowed. Is that really a burden we want to place on nurses?”
Rodrigues said that it is the responsibility of the government to invest in its workforce, because staff shortages will ultimately have a serious effect on patients.
“Nurses, midwives and AHPs enter the profession as carers. This is their ethos: to selflessly support society – our friends, our family, our neighbours and greater communities – for the greater good. If we were to introduce student loans, we’re essentially taxing carers and attacking this ethos. That’s not what we want to do.
“If we want to seriously tackle the agency worker problem, which is costing the NHS billions, then we have to create serious incentives to attract a larger dedicated workforce. Student loans will do nothing towards this goal.”