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NHS: Bursaries

Volume 773: debated on Wednesday 25 May 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to halt plans to withdraw National Health Service bursaries.

My Lords, the Government do not intend to halt plans to withdraw National Health Service bursaries for nursing, midwifery and allied health students undertaking pre-registration training at university. The Government are currently running a public consultation on how to most successfully implement those reforms. The changes will affect only new students commencing courses on or after 1 August 2017.

But, my Lords, has the Minister seen the PAC analysis which says that, because of the loss of the bursary and the introduction of loans, there is a real risk that many people, particularly older people with children, will be dissuaded from applying to train as nurses and in allied health professions? Given that, and given the desperate shortage of nurses and other professionals, should not the Government take a little time to examine whether their original decision was justified rather than simply consulting on the way that it is going to be implemented?

My Lords, all the evidence is—not just from nursing but from other university courses—that loans have not reduced the numbers of people wishing to go to university: indeed, quite the contrary. The number of people going to university has gone up since student loans were introduced. The demand from young men and women who wish to go into nursing is very strong. The noble Lord will know that 57,000 people apply every year to become nurses and there are only 20,000 places, so we are confident that this will result in more, not fewer nurses.

My Lords, will the Minister say how much the Treasury will save by shifting this debt from the Government to low-paid nurses? Given the demographic of nurses, who are overwhelmingly female and, as I said, relatively low-paid, surely quite a lot of that student debt will never be repaid. Is this really such a good deal for the Government?

I think that it is a good deal for the Government—as the noble Baroness puts it like that—on a number of fronts. It is good for patients because there will be more nurses. It is good for the Government because there will be less need to recruit overseas nurses and agency nurses. Of course, the noble Baroness is right that for mature students coming in, the time to repay the student loan debt will be shorter than for younger people, but the Government will still make a return on that.

Is the Minister aware that nursing students spend about 50% of their time on clinical placements? Given that there is no provision in the consultation document for extra financial facilities to be made available to hospitals providing those placements, how will they cope with the overstretch that is already in the hospital mentoring system?

That is a good question. Nurses spend 2,300 hours of their three-year course in clinical placements in hospitals. They are supernumerary. They are clearly supervised and mentored in that setting, but they also provide a fair amount of care in those hospitals as well. I am pretty confident that hospitals will work out an arrangement with universities to ensure that they create enough clinical placements for those nurses.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that nurses used to have free accommodation and were also paid, but now they have these debts hanging over them? What is the view of the Royal College of Nursing?

My Lords, I think that the Royal College of Nursing, Unison and other unions have concerns about moving from bursaries to student loans; it would be idle to pretend otherwise. But we are convinced that the demand for young people to go into nursing is very strong and that the availability of more money through the loan system to nurses at university will therefore encourage more people to go into nursing.

My Lords, I am sure that there is a simple answer to my question that everybody else knows. My noble friend said that there were 20,000 nursing places available for training and more than 50,000 people wishing to fill them. But we also read that there is a shortage of nurses such that there are very heavy demands made for agency nursing. What explains that discrepancy?

My Lords, the reason for the discrepancy is that at the moment the bursary system effectively caps the number of student places for nursing. One of the purposes of moving to the loan system is to remove that cap and our estimate is that by so doing an additional 10,000 places will be created between 2017 and 2020.

My Lords, if you go to any nursing graduation ceremony you will see lots of 30 and 40 year-old women who have been carers and who now wish to retrain as nurses. This is a very valuable asset for the health service, and yet they are just the people who may be disenfranchised by this policy. Is it not crazy to do this?

My Lords, the loan will be available to mature students as well as to students taking their first degree. The loan structure is such that if someone will not be working for as long as a younger nurse they will not in all likelihood repay the whole of the loan, which will be written off at the end of the period. I agree entirely with what the noble Lord says; we depend heavily on mature students coming into nursing. Our view is that this will not put off those people.

My Lords, was permission given by the Department of Health for the disgraceful use of the NHS logo on the side of Boris’s blunder bus? I would ask the Minister to look at the precedents. At one stage we asked to use the NHS logo and were told that we could not because it was political. I ask the Minister to look into this.

My Lords, I do not think that this has much to do with the Question on the Order Paper. Clearly, the NHS logo is a powerful and very strong brand and we should be very careful where we use it.