Kirsty Williams blasts cuts to student nurses’ financial support

One of the worst elements of the Governemnt’s Comprehensive Spending Review was the proposals to cut bursaries for student nurses. This is particularly reprehensible given that nursing students spend so much of their time actually working on wards. In fact, there are many wards that would buckle under the pressure if they weren’t there.

Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams, who has led the way in proposing a bill that would guarantee safe nurse staffing levels in Wales, has blasted the proposals and written to health secretary Jeremy Hunt to express her concerns. She said:

The UK already has a shortage of nurses; it’s outrageous that the Tories are now scrapping the valuable support available to student nurses. This will likely only exacerbate the problem by putting people off training to be a nurse.

This ill thought-out decision will badly impact student numbers in England, which would then no doubt have consequences for Wales’ ability to recruit too.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats’ ‘More Nurses’ bill will deliver a safe number of nurses on hospital wards. However, this announcement will have implications on Wales’ ability to plan and recruit our workforce to ensure safe staffing levels are met.

Student nurses spend 50% of their time in clinical practice working directly with patients. Not only does the move to a loan system mean that nurses would effectively be paying to work, but the varied shift work required makes it near-on impossible to get a job to supplement a student loan.

Nursing is also a profession into which many people enter later in life, when they may have a family and mortgage to support. Following this cut, there would be far less incentive for those wishing to train as a nurse to leave a paid role and take on substantial debt in order to fund their living costs.

The Tory UK Government has already performed a u-turn with regards to recruiting nurses from overseas after sustained pressure. This is another ludicrous decision that they must reverse, otherwise it is patients that will pay the cost through poorer hospital care.

The full text of Kirsty’s letter follows:

I was deeply worried to hear of the proposed cuts to nursing student bursaries in the recent Comprehensive Spending Review. Whilst the full implications for Wales are still unclear, there will be an inevitable impact on student numbers in England, with worrying consequences for the future workforce of the NHS across the UK.

I currently have a Private Members’ Bill before the National Assembly for Wales, due to be considered in the final stages of the legislative process in the New Year. My Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Bill seeks to ensure we have safe nurse staffing levels in our Welsh hospitals. The announcement on student bursaries is therefore very concerning, as it will have implications on our ability to plan and recruit our workforce in Wales to ensure that safe staffing levels are met.

The announcement of the replacement of bursaries with loans fails to recognise the very different nature of training in this profession. Student nurses spend 50% of their time in direct clinical practice, working over 2,300 hours in the clinical environment and a further 2,300 hours undertaking theoretical education. During the last three months of training, students are rostered for a 37.5 working week under clinical supervision. Not only does the move to a loan system mean that nurses would effectively be paying to work, but the intense workload and varied shift work required makes it near-on impossible to get a job to supplement a student loan, making bursaries vital to ensure courses are accessible.

Furthermore, nursing is a profession into which many people enter later in life, when they may have a family and mortgage to support. There would be far less incentive for those wishing to train as a nurse to leave a paid role and take on substantial debt in order to fund their living costs while completing this training.

I urge you to reconsider your decision on this matter, which could have serious implications for the nursing workforce across the UK. In the meantime I would be grateful if you could clarify the implications of this announcement for Wales to end the uncertainty for many students.

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7 Comments

  • “The UK already has a shortage of nurses; it’s outrageous that the Tories are now scrapping the valuable support available to student nurses. This will likely only exacerbate the problem by putting people off training to be a nurse.”

    Hang on… I thought Lib Dems had been telling us this past five years that fees don’t put people off going to university?

  • Peter Watson 31st Dec '15 - 10:39pm

    Like Stuart, I am also confused by what this statement by a senior Lib Dem tells us about the party’s position. Over the last 5 years or so I regularly speculated that university application figures, often cited by Lib Dems as evidence that increasing tuition fees and student loans was a good thing (particularly with regards to social mobility), were flattered by the fact that entry to nursing had changed to require a degree (the largest subject by student numbers) and that nursing students were subsidised (including tuition fees paid by the NHS). Also, criticisms were regularly made about the effect of the policy on mature students, including those changing careers. I would be delighted to think someone of Kirsty Williams’ calibre is coming round to that point of view.
    However, this government’s replacement of grants and bursaries with loans is a straightforward extension of a policy that Lib Dems supported and defended when in government. On the face of it, this looks like another example of the party being unclear about its position in a number of policy areas and the extent to which it should defend or distance itself from decisions made in government.

    P.S. I know that not all Lib Dems supported tuition fees and larger student loans, but it is a policy that Clegg and many other senior figures enthusiastically “owned” on behalf of the party.

  • This article talks about current government plans to replace grants for living costs for those studying nursing with a loan; it does not relate to tuition fees which are paid back when students earn above a threshold upon leaving university. These are two separate issues. The government plans fail to recognise the very different nature of a nursing degree, where students are effectively working and on rota (and with a loan would be paying to work) and are unable to take a second job to help support their living costs as they do not follow the term time pattern of regular students. The comment by Kirsty here is in line with the Welsh Liberal Democrat focus on support for living costs, rather than subsidising tuition fees. WLD policy is for a ‘student living support grant for Welsh-domiciled students’ which ‘will benefit students from Wales by putting more money in their pockets when they need it most to help meet pressing living costs, rather than defraying a future debt that many would not be required to repay in full anyway.’ (WLD policy paper ‘Freedom and Fairness in Higher Education’ 2013). I hope this helps clarify the position.

  • Peter Watson 7th Jan '16 - 12:22am

    @Sion Donne
    I should emphasise that I have not agreed with the party’s line on tuition fees and I do not disagree with you (or Kirsty Williams). However I am still trying to get my head around the Lib Dem position on tuition fees and the funding of university students which does risk appearing inconsistent, and consequently some statements can sound like cynical and opportunistic attempts to garner votes.

    “This article talks about current government plans to replace grants for living costs for those studying nursing with a loan; it does not relate to tuition fees which are paid back when students earn above a threshold upon leaving university.”
    Surely the plans are to replace the grant with exactly the same sort of loan that other students have for tuition fees and living costs which will only be repaid by graduates once they earn above a threshold. In the last five years Lib Dems have claimed that this scheme is a good thing that has contributed to improved social mobility. Recently it has been suggested that nurses’ tuition fees might no longer be paid by the NHS (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/11908146/Nurses-could-be-forced-to-pay-tuition-fees-under-new-Treasury-proposals.html): is this something that Lib Dems support?
    “students are effectively working and on rota … and are unable to take a second job to help support their living costs”
    Students at Cambridge University have to sign an undertaking that they will not have paid jobs during term-time, and many other students do not have the time if they want to give their full attention to their studies. If nurses are “effectively working” as part of their studies then perhaps moving towards payment for that work is a more consistent and open approach than a grant.
    On the subject of WLD policy on student funding. while I accept that devolved policy-making is a good feature of Lib Dem politics, it leaves me scratching my head about the consistency of Lib Dem policy, especially since the student loan for living costs was established long before Labour introduced top-up fees and the coalition increased them.

  • Our key issue with this is not the level of debt, which as mentioned is only paid back above a certain threshold. Nurses are already entitled to a loan for living costs similar to other students, and in addition this bursary which reflects the very different nature of a nursing degree, where students spend 50% of their time in direct clinical practice, working over 2,300 hours in the clinical environment. They therefore are unable to work to supplement their living costs and may be unable to rely on family members for support, particularly as many enter this profession later in life already with a mortgage and family of their own to support. Yes perhaps payment would be a better means of recognising the different nature of this degree – but that would be more costly for the NHS and is not the offer on the table here. The bursary acts as an incentive for people to enter this profession to help address the chronic shortage of nurses and to ensure that we can have a safe level of nurses on our wards, which Kirsty’s Bill also seeks to achieve. A survey of 2,000 nurses revealed that nine in ten would not have applied for their nursing degree without access to the bursary. Removing it and instead offering nurses to take on more debt to fund their living costs, while other students could earn in a part time role alongside their studies if necessary, would disadvantage those seeking to enter this profession when compared to others and fails to recognise the very different demands of this course and the need to recruit more people into nursing studies.

  • Peter Watson 8th Jan '16 - 6:31pm

    @Sian Donne
    You make several points about the extra funding that is and probably should be available to nursing students (and others). It is the general position of Lib Dems with regards to student funding that concerns me, and nursing raises some very important issues.

    Surely no student should be required to undertake paid work in order to afford a university place, and many other courses (e.g. veterinary medicine) require a significant amount of unpaid work experience (and/or more study hours) that leaves no time for such work. If loyal Lib Dems were correct when they extolled the virtues of the new fees and loan scheme, then why should nurses need special treatment? Why not a larger loan (this government is already extending the coalition’s approach by replacing grants to poorer students with loans)?

    To an extent I am playing devil’s advocate here: I have not supported the party’s position on fees and loans and I am particularly vexed by claims that it has improved social mobility (e.g. https://www.libdemvoice.org/18-year-olds-from-disadvantaged-backgrounds-in-england-72-more-likely-to-apply-to-university-than-they-were-in-2006-44483.html). The special case of nursing is, I believe, important here. Entry into nursing became exclusively at a graduate-level and from 2009/10 nursing became by far the most popular degree subject by numbers of applications and places. Tuition fees are paid by the NHS so it is not affected by that change and other financial support is also available to nursing students. Also, as you indicate, it is likely that the large number of people entering nursing via the university route who would not previously have done so represent a very different demographic from traditional university applicants. The effect of this on statistics for university applications is ignored (except for university entry by age in UCAS reports) and may weaken the case made for the benefits of the new scheme.

  • @Sian and Peter – interesting discussion.
    I suspect that the general reader needs more background on both the way student nurses are financially supported and from which funding pots (and how this differs from ‘normal’ university students). It would seem from Sian’s comments that part of the problem is that most (or all?) financial support is being provided by the NHS budget and hence the crux of the issue is the NHS trying to reduce it’s gross payout.

    Also we should not forget the international context, namely does the government expect to have to pay bursaries to foreign (eg. EU) nationals who, once trained may not remain in the NHS and hence it is natural for the government to seek some form of reimbursement.

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