I knew what impact Jeremy Hunt’s ridiculous reform would have on nurses. Because I was one.

Nurses protesting against bursaries being cut
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I started my nurse training in 1991. I had a bursary and lived in subsidised hospital accommodation. There were no tuition fees, and I finished my training with no debt.

But it was hard work. We had to be in college all day, every day. We didn’t get long holidays. On placement, we had to work full shifts – days, nights, weekends. Friends doing conventional degree courses looked on in amazement.

End of nursing bursaries

It seems reasonable that people going into a vitally important but poorly paid profession should be paid to do the training. But in autumn 2015, then-chancellor George Osborne announced that student nurse bursaries were to be scrapped and replaced with loans. Osborne said:

Today there is a cap on student nurses; over half of all applicants are turned away, and it leaves hospitals relying on agencies and overseas staff. So we’ll replace direct funding with loans for new students – so we can abolish this self-defeating cap and create up to 10,000 new training places in this Parliament.

Defending Osborne’s decision, then-health secretary Jeremy Hunt claimed the reform could lead to an extra 20,000 places by 2020.

More places doesn’t mean more students

What neither politician appeared to grasp is that creating new nursing places is pointless if people won’t apply for them. Would-be nurses now face the prospect of graduating with a debt of around £50,000 and then starting with pay of £22,128 a year for an incredibly stressful job. It shouldn’t be a great surprise if many people vote with their feet and choose a different course. And this is exactly what’s happening.

Since bursaries were axed in 2017, applications to nursing courses in England have dropped by a third. In Scotland, however, where the government pays tuition fees for student nurses as well as giving them a non-means tested bursary, applications have remained stable [pdf p7].

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Crisis in nurse numbers

The Royal College of Nursing warned the government that this move would cause a fall in applications, but it was ignored. Now the NHS is reaping the harvest: a huge drop in student numbers at a time when there were an estimated 40,000 nursing vacancies in England in 2017. This comes as we’ve also experienced a dramatic drop in EU nurses applying to work in Britain since the Brexit vote. It’s a crisis entirely of the government’s own making.

Several nurses have explained why they think the bursary is vital:

Nursing can be an incredibly rewarding career. But it’s bloody hard work, and the pay is abysmal for what you do. It’s no surprise that applications to nursing courses have plummeted now that students are looking at coming out with a mountain of debt which they will have to repay over many years (at potentially staggering interest rates, depending on income).

Matt Hancock has been appointed as the new health secretary. It would be nice to think he might see sense and restore student bursaries in order to slow down the impending NHS nursing crisis. But I’m not holding my breath.

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