The government has confirmed that it will continue with plans to end bursaries for student nurses and midwives.
This decision has sparked a great deal of anger among the nursing fraternity, with many already suggesting that removing bursaries would prevent people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds entering the nursing profession.
But the Department of Health defended the decision, suggesting that replacing bursaries with loans would create an additional £800 million of funding annually, and enable additional nursing roles to be created, thus helping students enter the profession.
However, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Royal College of Midwives (RCM) were both strongly critical of the bursary changes, suggesting that eliminating bursaries were both unfair and risky for the nursing profession.
Nursing experts have already suggested that the move will threaten the delivery of maternity services in England, and clearly the government has a fight on its hands in reaction to this policy.
A broad coalition of over 20 charities, current medical and professional bodies, and trade unions had already written to former prime minister David Cameron to decry the bursary decision.
Led by the RCN, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Patients Association, the open letter described the scrapping of bursaries as a “gamble”, and went on to outline the inevitable impact on people of modest means wishing to enter the nursing profession.
Commenting on the issue, the RCN general secretary, Janet Davies, acknowledged that the government has listened to some of the concerns of the authoritative nurses union, but still ultimately condemned the decision made on bursaries.
“While our members are extremely unhappy with this model, it is positive that the government has listened to some of our concerns, including the transitional bursaries for postgraduates and hardship funds. But there is still a worrying lack of clarity on clinical placements. Nurses will be dismayed that these plans will go ahead with no testing, despite the overwhelming concerns that they have consistently raised.”
Jon Skewes of the RCM offered an unequivocal position of solidarity with the RCN, suggesting that scrapping bursaries could have incredibly wide-reaching consequences.
“We have grave concerns for the future of maternity services and the midwifery profession in England as a result. Ministers have made minor concessions on the cost of placements and hardship, but this does not compensate for the large debts that midwifery students will experience and is not sufficient.”
Christina McAnea, head of health at the Unison union, was even stronger in her opinions on the subject, suggesting that the government had merely been paying lip service to the concerns of unions during the consultation process, and that they had fundamentally failed to heed the opinions of professionals.
“They seem not to care that in a few years’ time the NHS will be seriously short of nurses and there will be too few new recruits coming through to fill the gaps. That’s because the prospect of graduating with more than £50,000 of debt will discourage many from entering the profession at a time when the NHS is struggling to fill vacancies.”
With the government already involved in an ongoing dispute with junior doctors, it seems likely that this will further sour the relations between the Conservative party and healthcare professionals.