The news that ministers might be thinking about restoring bursaries for nursing students is welcome.
The NHS gets plenty of national political attention – with hospital building forming a centrepiece of the pre-announcements around Conservative party conference. But too often little thought goes into how we fund those who will staff it. Our student finance system fails student nurses, is terrible for their university experience and mental health, and a key cause for number of applicants for nursing degrees falling nationally.
Funding provided to nursing students by student finance fails to reflect the differences between undergraduate students studying for 2 trimesters and our nursing students (and other healthcare students) who study for 3 trimesters. Traditional undergraduates have the option to work over their “summer” period, but nursing students are not afforded this same opportunity. Given that they work 6 week-long full-time unpaid placements, working a part-time job is not feasible, so how are they meant to make up this difference?
The reality is that a lot of nursing students have no choice but to work around their degree due to their financial hardship. A large proportion of nursing students are mature students with children and dependents, and little to no support is given to students who are facing childcare costs whilst they are on unpaid placements, especially during the “summer”. This leaves them overworked, taking a massive toll on them mentally, emotionally and physically as they take on hours on top of their 37.5 hours placements just to be able to afford everyday expenses and provide for their families. No wonder the number of mature students is in freefall.
Nursing students even struggle to afford the cost to their placement as they are paying our £100’s each month in fuel costs. Some take out additional, commercial loans. They are also faced with parking fees at their placement sites which can sometimes be up to £10 each day – even though they provide free labour for the NHS. Placements are unpaid as students are there to learn, but with such a shortage of nursing staff across the UK, nursing students often find themselves missing out on witnessing procedures and learning opportunities because they are needed on their shift..
The stress that these nursing students are under in regard to financial pressures is huge. The sector often talks about mental health initiatives and what we can do to better support wellbeing, but puppy rooms and extra counselling staff won’t address this issue.
What can we do?
As ministers in England progress discussions on funding for nursing students, we need to ensure that the conversation is moved beyond just the number of trainees and the national shortage we are experiencing – and start considering what can be done to mitigate the financial difficulties experienced by students and the impact this has. The Scottish Government has already resolved to raise the bursary to £10,000 by 2020. That will help students to cover accommodation costs and expenses during their studies and make it easier to have a career in the health service.
In England, the Office for Students seems to be playing a role in medicine and health education, outlined in blogs like this. But throwing £1 million a year to raise “awareness” and promote uptake for courses seems a real kick in the teeth to those who are on the courses already and are struggling financially. It gives the impression that for OfS, numbers for recruitment matter more than the individuals studying the courses.
Put simply, if there’s money around it needs to go into fixing the actual issues and supporting students – not endlessly researching the barriers when these are well known. Between the work of SUs across the county and the Royal College of Nursing “Fund our Future Nurses Campaign”, these issues can’t be any clearer to see.
Nursing and health care students need a funding solution that is fit for purpose and supports them throughout their study to live, study and attend work placements. And whilst that is being considered, let’s give nursing students a gesture of goodwill to show our commitment to sorting these issues out by at least giving them free placement parking.