08/03/2016 12:50 GMT | Updated 08/03/2016 13:59 GMT

Scrapping Student Nurse Bursary Could Have 'Disruptive' Impact On Staff Numbers, Warns Report

Carl Court via Getty Images
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 09: Student nurses and health workers take part in a demonstration against government plans to scrap the NHS bursary on January 9, 2016 in London, England. The government are proposing to scrap the bursary and from 2017, are asking future nurses, midwives and other allied health professionals to pay up to £50,000 to train to care. Future nurses and midwives will find it extremely difficult if not impossible to pay this debt off. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Jeremy Hunt’s decision to axe the student bursary for nurses could have a “disruptive” impact on hospital’s recruiting and retaining staff, an independent report warned today.

The NHS Pay Review Body argued both the “supply” and “quality” of people applying to train as nurses could fall because the bursary system is to be replaced by student loans.

Student nurses and midwives can get a payout from £1,000 to more than £4,000, depending on circumstances and location, from the Government to help pay for their training.

In last year’s Autumn Statement, Chancellor George Osborne announced the scheme would be scrapped as part of an £800million package of savings.

Today’s report from the NHS Pay Review Body flagged up concerns over the impact of cutting the scheme, and said: "The removal of the incentive of the bursary could have an unsettling effect on the number and quality of applications for nursing training places in the early years

The report added: “The removal of bursaries for student nurses could also have a disruptive impact on supply or the quality of supply; at the least, precedent suggests a risk that demand for these courses from potential quality students could fluctuate in the first two or three years, as the new arrangements are phased in.”

In a statement to the Huff Post UK, the chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing backed up the concerns raised in the report.

Janet Davies said: “Replacing bursaries with student loans could put the future supply of nurses at risk.

“The average age of a student nurse is 29 and this move could deter mature students, who already have loans to pay back and families to care for, from entering the profession.

“The move to loans also risks severing the critical link between the NHS and nursing students and could impact on the ability to ensure that the right numbers of nurses are in the right place and with the right skills.

“The proposals will make it significantly more difficult to plan for the future workforce and the RCN is equally as concerned about the implications for practice education, placement availability and support.

“The effect of the changes must be closely monitored to protect the future of nursing.”

READ: My Bursary Meant I Could Spend My Final Year In the Library, Not Manning a Till

Shadow Health Secretary Heidi Alexander

Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Heidi Alexander urged the Government to “think again” over the plans, which are set to come into force from August next year.

She said: “This is yet further evidence that Ministers are taking a huge gamble with the future of the NHS and patient safety. There is already a shortage of nurses in the NHS and scrapping bursaries risks making the recruitment and retention of staff even harder.

“This is a political decision, motivated by short-term financial savings. Nurses and midwives shouldn’t be saddled with a lifetime of debt to pay for this Tory Government’s financial mismanagement of the NHS.

“The report is also right to warn about the impact on the quality of students entering NHS careers should bursaries be removed. The application process for nursing is currently very vigorous – and rightly so – as it is essential we recruit professionals with the right values and attributes.

The announcement of the abolition of the bursary scheme provoked protests on the streets of London, Manchester and Newcastle, with thousands of student nurses and midwives marching to show their opposition to proposal.

Almost 160,000 people signed a parliamentary petition calling for the Government to rethink its policy, and in response the Department of Health said the move on to a student loan system would “enable up to 10,000 additional nursing, midwifery and allied health training places over this parliament.

“Rather than denying thousands of UK applicants a place to study nursing, midwifery and the allied health subjects at university, we will be boosting participation and securing the future supply of these professions to the NHS.

“This will mean more applicants will get the chance to become a health professional.”

The Department of Health spends around £826m every year to fund 60,000 students through their three year degree courses.

The NHS Pay Review Body handed workers just a 1% rise for 2016/17, in line with Government restrictions.

However, it was also announced today that prison service workers will get a 1.36% pay increase.

The deal was rubber-stamped by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Greg Hands, who said it was in light of “highly ambitious prison reform” being introduced.

Referring to the 1% increase for other public sector workers, Mr Hands said:

“Our armed forces, NHS workers and prison officers do a brilliant job serving our country but with an increasingly turbulent global economy, pay restraint continues to be a key part of our plan to finish fixing the public finances.

“The independent OBR estimates that 200,000 public sector jobs have been protected thanks to our average 1% pay policy so we can continue to deliver crucial public services.”

Unite the Union assistant general secretary for public services, Gail Cartmail, said the 1% increase showed public sector workers were “whipping boys” for the Government’s austerity agenda.

She said: “Many public sector staff are enduring levels of poverty pay, while tax-breaks and sweetheart deals for tax-avoiding multi-nationals are the order of the day.

“It is small wonder that the NHS staff are leaving the health service for better pay and work/life balance either in the private sector or abroad. As a consequence, billions of pounds are being spent on agency staff to plug the gaps. This is no way to run the NHS.”