NHS students march in the Bursary or Bust protest, London 9 January 2016. Photo: RonF (under creative commons)
The government must rethink its plans for the NHS bursary
Today hundreds of healthcare students are descending on Parliament to lobby their MPs to protect the NHS bursary.
The government decision in December’s spending review to scrap bursaries will leave student nurses, midwives and allied health professionals with huge levels of debt.
And this fear of debt will discourage many people from pursuing careers in the NHS, worsening the already severe recruitment crisis and leading to potentially disastrous repercussions for patient safety.
The members of many different unions will be represented at the lobby today, but it is not just the workforce raising concerns.
The NHS pay review body raised concerns about the impact of government plans on the supply of healthcare workers, suggesting that the removal of the bursary could have an unsettling effect on the number and quality of applications for training places.
Earlier this month the Public Accounts Committee estimated that the NHS is short of 50,000 clinical staff, which is of huge concern in itself.
However, the Committee also pointed out that government plans to scrap bursaries could have a negative impact on both the overall number of applicants and on certain groups, such as mature students or those with children.
Thankfully the defence of the bursary is an issue that MPs across a number of political parties have taken seriously, with Wes Streeting’s early day motion becoming the most-signed in the last Parliament.
So UNISON is calling in particular on Conservative MPs to meet with their constituents today and hear about the very real impact the proposed changes will have on their livelihoods and on the chances of them taking up jobs in nursing, midwifery and other professions.
The students – and those already working in the NHS – will not lack for ammunition when they meet MPs.
New independent research published today by UNISON and the NUS dismantles the government argument for moving away from the bursary system.
The report, written by London Economics, finds that the removal of the bursary and its replacement with repayable loans will increase the total level of debt for a representative healthcare student to nearly £50,000.
Second, it estimates a reduction of 6-7% in those choosing to take up study in nursing, midwifery and allied health professions, equivalent to a loss of more than 2,000 students in the first year.
Third, it concludes that higher education institutions will suffer financially as a result of the bursary being scrapped, by as much as £57-£77 million per cohort of students. It is even suggested that some universities may decide to stop running some health related courses altogether if they become unsustainable.
And finally, the cost savings to the Exchequer are likely to be far less than the government has suggested, and with any savings wiped out by an anticipated increase in expensive agency staffing to fill the shortfall in numbers.
So rather than the government’s current consultation exercise focused purely on the implementation of the proposals, there needs to be a different process to engage all interested parties in the pursuit of a more sustainable approach – one that does not burden students with huge levels of debt nor place higher education institutions in financial peril.
Patients and the public want and deserve a properly staffed NHS, so it is now time for the government to take a step back before it is too late.