Analysis

Exclusive: Nursing students increasingly relying on hardship funds

The financial plight of nursing students is expected to get even worse if bursaries are axed, unions warn

Millions of pounds are being paid to debt-ridden nursing students to prevent them from dropping out of university courses.

Data exclusively obtained by RCNi.com shows £5.2 million in discretionary funding has been handed out since 2013.

In total, 36 universities in England said that 6,573 nursing students resorted to hardship grants between September 2013 and March 2016. 

Hand to mouth

Unison head of nursing Gail Adams says: ‘Most nursing students are living hand to mouth. Hardship funds can make all the difference.’

Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe says student funding problems – and the end of the student bursary in 2017 – are a ‘workforce time bomb’ for the NHS.

Mr Jarrett-Thorpe says: ‘Using hardship funds is a temporary solution, and what we need is to properly fund our students. Hardship funds are a last resort – they are not loans and they are not huge amounts, usually a few hundred quid.’

King’s College London (KCL) second-year nursing student Marina Down says she has not managed to procure extra funding support, despite being a single parent with a young daughter. Her monthly outgoings far exceed her bursary income.

‘At its most dire point, I have had to use food banks, because I have had literally no money,’ she says.

Lifetime of debt

Labour shadow health minister Justin Madders says: ‘This situation will get worse if the government scraps nursing student bursaries and lands the next generation of staff with a lifetime of debt.’

Common reasons for applying for hardship funds include inability to cover basic living expenses such as rent, mortgage, child care and IT equipment.

National Union of Students president Megan Dunn says: ‘The bursaries and scholarships provided by many institutions are not usually made available to nursing students. 

‘Nursing students have long been more likely to need additional support, given they are more likely to be mature students with children and from poorer backgrounds.

Less generous 

NUS research from 2012, found that NHS-funded healthcare students receive a finance package that is, overall, less generous than those for other undergraduates in England.

Ms Dunn says: ‘The situation is likely to be similar today, if not worse.’

The research also found one fifth of NHS-funded students applied for discretionary funds compared with 11% of other undergraduates.

Ms Dunn also says funding for child care in the bursary scheme is only available for OFSTED-registered and approved providers.

Such funding is not always available when nursing students require it – especially for overnight shifts on placement – so many students have to rely on other sources. 

Gaps in support

The issue of gaps in support for nursing and healthcare students is not a new one. In its 2015 statement, the Council of Deans of Health said KCL paid out 63% of its hardship funds to healthcare students in 2012/13.

Head of student support, health and wellbeing, at Canterbury Christ Church University, Karen James, says her institution wants students to have the ‘best possible university experience’. 

Ms James adds: ‘It is important to provide support for students who find themselves in need of financial assistance to continue with their studies.’

Disincentive to applicants

RCN welfare adviser Claire Cannings anticipates the bursary changes will put off mature applicants to nursing degree courses.

Ms Cannings asks: ‘Would this mean fewer students applying to hardship funds?’

A recent London Economics report, commissioned by Unison and the NUS, suggests there will be 2,000 fewer students applying for nursing and midwifery degrees in the first year of implementation, due to increased costs.

Find out more

NHS student bursary
RCN Foundation
Cavell Nurses' Trust

This article is for subscribers only

Jobs