Nursing students descended on Westminster to convince MPs that they should increase funding for nursing higher education in England.
They were supporting the RCN’s Fund Our Future campaign, which aims to raise awareness of the pressures and financial difficulties many nursing students face.
The campaign calls for the Government to put at least £1bn a year back into nursing higher education in England. This would help support students who are struggling to make ends meet and boost the number of people entering nurse training.
Since the bursary was scrapped in England in 2016, applications to study nursing are down by a third and there have been nearly 900 fewer people accepted onto nursing degree courses.
The RCN organised a lobby of parliament which gave students the chance to speak to MPs about their experiences of undertaking a nursing degree and the negative impact financial hardship has on their studies and lives.
Adaeze Bowen spoke to her MP Kemi Budenach, saying she wanted to be heard and to share her story.
She said: "Since the bursary was scrapped, not only have student nurse numbers visibly dwindled, the drop in morale and motivation on the wards has also been evident. I came here to speak out for the future of student nurses. We're not simply students, but nurses in training and we deserve to be valued by having our funding protected.
"Nurses, both student and qualified, deal with stressful, challenging situations on a daily basis. We have to confront death, aggression, emotional distress and long, physically demanding work hours – and then go home and look after our children, pay our bills and keep a roof over our heads with no income.
"If you add to this the prospect of being saddled with a huge debt at the end of our studies, and the fact that progression to a decent salary is notoriously difficult, especially if you're from an ethnic minority background, then it's no wonder that fewer people are applying to train as nurses."
The stress of struggling financially has nearly cost me both my marriage and my studies
Megan Fletcher spoke to MPs to try and explain why a nursing degree is so different to any other.
She said: "When I did my first undergraduate degree, I had eight hours of contact time at university and the rest of the time was my own for studying, working, socialising. The difference with a nursing degree is immense. When I'm on placement, I'm working 37.5 hours a week. That's before I even start doing any of my academic work. Nursing really is a totally different degree and therefore needs to be funded totally differently as well."
Rosie Schofield, a postgraduate nursing student, also tried to impress on MPs the unique position of students for whom nursing is a second degree. She said: "Postgraduate degrees are the quickest way to train the new nurses we so desperately need in the NHS. But asking people who already have £60k+ in loans from their first degree to then take on an another huge loan is simply unrealistic. It's understandably off-putting especially when at the end of it we're looking at a highly stressful career that only pays on average £23k."
Other students also had their say at the lobby:
Following the lobby, there was a debate in Westminster Hall led by Wolverhampton South West MP Eleanor Smith, who is a nurse by background.
She demanded the return of the bursary and called for more financial support for future nurses to help tackle the workforce crisis.
“Nursing is at a critical juncture,” she said. “We have got to grow our nursing workforce. The nursing degree is the fastest and safest way to do this.”
Nursing is at a critical juncture. We have got to grow our nursing workforce
She slammed the Government’s decision to remove the bursary in 2016, claiming the rationale that this would remove the cap on the number of training places universities could offer nursing students was fundamentally flawed.
“This is untrue. Funding of nursing student numbers has always been a political choice. It is always up to the Government what it chooses to fund.”
On that, she called for the funding removed from nursing higher education when the bursary was scrapped to be put back into supporting nursing students.
This equates to more than £1bn, which the RCN is campaigning to see set aside to help grow the nursing workforce when NHS England publishes its long-term-plan in December.
A passionate debate followed Eleanor’s speech, with many MPs mentioning the RCN’s Fund Our Future campaign and the impact of having talked to nursing students during the lobby that preceded the debate.
Janet Daby MP made the point that England is the only country in the UK not to have a bursary for nursing students and that this was having a particular impact on the number of mature students.
“This is affecting specialist areas of care, such as learning disability, mental health and community nursing, which usually attract more mature students and already suffer from staff shortages.
“In the context of Brexit, growing our domestic workforce will be even more important. If we invest in the future of nursing, we will be investing in our NHS.”
Dr Caroline Johnson MP agreed that something must be done to make sure nursing remains an accessible career. “We must ensure that anyone who has the desire and capability to train as a nurse is able to do so and not hindered by how much money they have or where they’re from,” she said.
We must ensure that anyone who has the desire and capability to train as a nurse is able to do so
Justin Madders MP lamented the “predictable and preventable” nursing workforce crisis created by the removal of the bursary and said the Government should have consulted the RCN before ploughing ahead with the decision in 2016.
In response, Health Minister Stephen Hammond MP said that work is underway to assess the impact of removing the bursary and pledged to work with the RCN on its proposals to improve funding for nursing higher education.
He said workforce planning will be addressed in a specific chapter of the NHS long-term plan and committed to consulting on the detailed proposals the RCN has put forward on the future of student nurse funding.
Those proposals include costed measures such as a maintenance grant for all nursing students and practical support for tuition, including bringing back the bursary or introducing forgivable loans. In this second option, loans would be paid back by the Government in return for nursing service.
Find out more
Visit the RCN Fund Our Future campaign page.
To find out more about the RCN’s proposals, read Fund Our Future Nurses: Cost Effective Options to Support Nursing Students and Grow the Nursing Workforce in England.