Today I’ve been thinking about student nurse bursaries – you might have heard that student nurses are about to lose their bursary payments. These are relatively small payments, aimed at giving student nurses some renumeration for their hard work whilst on placement. The understanding is that student nurses should not be counted in nursing numbers as they are termed ‘supernumerary’ in order to learn ‘on the job’. Balancing learning with being part of a nursing team can be difficult, often causing tension because student nurses sometimes claim they are counted in numbers. Whatever happens, during placement student nurses work exceptionally hard, often balancing rigorous academic assignments with twelve-hour placement shifts. I have not always been a nurse – I came to nursing relatively late in life. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time and, when I was financially able to – with the help of the student bursary – I returned to university to study adult nursing. I saw being a ‘mature’ student nurse as an asset – I was able to bring a lot of life experience to my role and I have never regretted studying for nursing when I did.
The student nurse bursary was a crucial part of my decision to become a student nurse; I had a growing family to support and a mortgage to pay. I had to have help to achieve my goal, as do many student nurses. There is no question that, without the student nurse bursary, my family and I could not have survived the training and the resulting financial implications. My bursary helped me to buy some very expensive academic books, pay travel expenses or parking costs and to feed and clothe my children. Crucially, I also left university with no debt handicap.
According to figures in March 2013 the NHS was still short of 1,199 full time equivalent registered nurses compared with April 2010 (BBC March 2014) and in February 2016, it was reported that tens of thousands of nurse and doctor posts remain vacant (BBC February 2016). I find myself pondering how scrapping student nurse bursaries is going to help the recruitment of nurses in the future.
Scrapping student nurse bursaries could have a profound impact on the future of nursing and I question the timing of this decision. The NHS is currently struggling with a financial black hole (FT 2015), and many forums and groups have appeared on social media in support of the NHS generally, a sure sign that the state of the NHS is a concern for many. With a backdrop of patient choice agenda, the lines are becoming blurred between private and NHS care (Net Doctor), and it is perhaps unsurprising that many are confused about what the NHS offers and whether private medicine is better. To compound this, a King’s Fund study ranked the UK 13th out of 15 original EU members and casts doubt on ministers’ claims they are giving the NHS generous cash settlement (Guardian 2016). Add to this a plethora of bad news stories and I am suspicious we are being talked out of the NHS entirely.
As practitioners we know what the NHS delivers: courage, compassion and exceptional value for money. We have more patients who are happy with NHS care than not, demonstrated by how we are bought chocolates and sent cards thanking us for our care. The timing of the scrapping of student nurse bursaries is designed to coincide with the NHS struggling to be understood. NHS practitioners perhaps need to begin to believe in the NHS again and sing its praises. We need to challenge the misconceptions that are being peddled on a regular basis; the NHS may have its faults but would we rather it disappeared? I believe not.
The NHS is in need of our help – we, the NHS family know this, we understand it and, like family, we will be the ones to help it. I believe we need to advocate for the NHS itself; it will prove to be our biggest and most important patient of all.
Let’s do it.