College calls for at least £1bn a year to be put back into student higher education funding from Government’s £20bn NHS promise as part of NHS Ten Year Plan
Student nurses will descend on Westminster today (Wednesday) as the Royal College of Nursing calls for at least £1bn investment in student nurse funding to be included in next month’s long term plan from NHS England, to halt decline in student numbers and begin to address the 42,000 nursing vacancies currently jeopardising safe patient care.
Students will meet MPs ahead of a debate on Wednesday which will discuss the future of nurse education funding at a Westminster Hall debate called by Wolverhampton South West MP Eleanor Smith, a nurse by background.
Since the living support bursary for nursing students was scrapped in 2016, applications to study nursing have fallen 33 per cent, while the number of students accepted onto courses has dropped 8 per cent, despite Government ambitions to drive up numbers.
The College has produced 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 service.
Patient care is already threatened by extreme nursing shortages across the health and social care system, yet vacancies are projected to rise as high as 48,000 if no action is taken. The effect on patient care would be catastrophic.
Student nurses face unique challenges. On top of 2,300 hours of academic study, they are required to complete an extra 2,300 hours of clinical placements over their three year course.
This is a thousand hours more time spent on their course than the average student.
Their student loans barely cover the cost of travel, housing and food, and most are not able to have a part-time job on top of the gruelling workload.
This pressure takes its toll. Many report suffering mental health problems during their course, and attrition rates for nursing courses average 21 per cent, far in excess of the 6.4 per cent UK average.
Financial pressures are leading more and more nursing students to apply for hardship loans, which rose 6 per cent to £3.47mn in the 2017-18 academic year.
A student nurse, who did not wish to be named, recounted her experience which is becoming all too common.
“My mental health was damaged in the first year of university, being the first cohort with no bursary. I was under so much pressure I went numb. I cried until I couldn’t cry any more. The people who make these decisions have no idea what it’s like. They teach us to have so much empathy for our patients yet they don’t have any for us.
“I know I will run out of money by December and will have to rely on my student overdraft. Being in debt plays on my mind constantly. And there is no end to it. I estimate that I’ll be £60,000 in debt at the end of my course, with interest constantly being added.
“It’s sometimes a challenge just to have enough money for food and to pay the rent. I’ve found myself in a situation where I could only afford to eat biscuits to get through the day. Luckily my mum wouldn’t let that happen.
“But there are others out there who don’t have that relationship with their mum, or their mum isn’t close by, or they don’t have a mum. And thank goodness for nice landlords who let me pay the rent late.”
Professor Dame Donna Kinnair, Acting Chief Executive and General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said:
“Every day provides new disastrous examples of how understaffing is crippling our health and social care system. Patient care is suffering, services are closing and overstretched nurses are working unpaid hours to keep health and care services afloat. Nursing students are inappropriately being used to plug gaps.
“With student numbers plummeting, nurse vacancies are predicted to rise to 48,000 by 2023 – if this is allowed to happen, it is patients who will pay the highest price. But Government can stop this.
“The disastrous decision to scrap the nursing student bursary has failed both students, the existing workforce and patients. The RCN has costed options to help attract and support nursing students, safeguard the future of the nursing profession, and secure the future of safe patient care in England.
“As part of the NHS Ten Year Plan we want at least £1bn invested in nursing higher education – ambitions are nothing without enough staff to make them happen.”
Dame Donna has written to Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Rt. Hon. Matt Hancock MP, calling on him to secure at least £1bn worth of funding from the Government as part of the NHS Long Term Plan, which is currently being drawn up and will prioritise NHS spending for the next decade. The plan is expected early December.