Hardship payments rise as students struggle without the bursary

Nursing Standard investigation reveals ‘alarming, yet predictable’ personal cost in England

Nursing Standard investigation reveals ‘alarming, yet predictable’ personal cost in England

  • Student numbers have fallen since the bursary was scrapped in England
  • RCN says burden of debt makes students think twice about nursing
  • Nursing students are now eligible for more financial support than in 2016-17, says Department of Health and Social Care

Picture: iStock

Hardship payments intended to enable nursing students to remain in their degree programmes have risen since the NHS bursary was cut in England, a Nursing Standard investigation shows.

£8.95 million

in hardship grants and funding has been paid to struggling nursing students at 49 universities across the UK since 2016

Responses obtained from 35 of 62 universities surveyed in England showed the hardship payments they made rose 6% to £3.47 million in the academic year after the bursary in England was scrapped in August 2017.

In a few cases the universities were unable to separate the figures for nursing students and midwifery and allied health professional students, but these groups are also affected by the bursary cut.

‘Sadly predictable’

RCN acting chief executive Dame Donna Kinnair, pictured left, says: ‘These alarming yet sadly predictable figures show the enormous personal cost of the government’s decision to scrap the bursary.

‘Nursing students are not like other students – they face the additional costs of travelling to clinical placements, and they are often unable to supplement their income with part-time jobs due to the workload involved in a nursing course.

‘But this disastrous policy doesn’t just have a huge personal impact on the students affected. Student numbers are down 8% since the bursary was scrapped.

‘The burden of debt is yet another factor that makes potential students think twice about studying for a nursing degree’

Dame Donna Kinnair, RCN acting chief executive

‘The burden of debt is yet another factor that makes potential students think twice about studying for a nursing degree.’

In the other three UK countries, 14 universities paid an additional £2.2 million in hardship funds over the same time period.

‘The money was eaten up by rent’

Sheffield Hallam University third-year adult nursing student Katie-May Taylor, pictured right, applied for a hardship grant at the start of this academic year to cover rent and living costs.

She says that without this assistance she would have had to drop out of the course or ask her parents for help. ‘The money was just eaten up by rent,’ she explains.

She was in the last cohort in England to receive the NHS bursary, but says that even that did not cover her rent.

‘The government should not have cut the bursary,’ she says. ‘They have done it without understanding the situation, and that students were already struggling, even with the bursary. It’s putting a lot of people off nursing.’

The Nursing and Midwifery Council requires students to complete 2,300 practice hours, in addition to their academic work, to qualify to join the nursing register.

This does not leave much time for part-time work, as many clinical placements take place during anti-social hours and what would be holiday time for other students.

However, because of financial pressures, many nursing students are forced to work.

‘Something needs to change’

Learning disability nursing master’s programme student Alice Waddington, pictured left, receives a £1,000 annual NHS bursary but still works two part-time jobs in the evenings and at weekends to help pay for her living costs.

She is in her final year of the programme at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk and lives at home with her parents, without whose help she would be unable to continue her studies.

Ms Waddington has not applied for hardship funding from her university and is ineligible for student loans because she is doing a master’s course.

She says: ‘If I really needed money for something I would go to my parents, but I don’t like asking them because I am an adult and should be able to pay my own way.

‘Something needs to change if they want people to carry on with nursing studies.’

‘Set to go from bad to worse’

Unite lead professional officer Obi Amadi says Nursing Standard’s findings are no surprise.

‘Many students run out of money, leaving them with few options – either leave or source a hardship loan’

Obi Amadi, Unite lead professional officer

‘This is what we predicted,’ says Ms Amadi, pictured right. ‘Many students can’t afford their loan and run out of money, leaving them with few options – either leave or source a hardship loan.

‘This is not the way to train a professional workforce – there should be parity across the professions.

‘The government needs to seriously review this system, as the situation is set to go from bad to worse – we have a nursing shortage and this will not encourage anyone to pursue nursing as a career.’

‘Funds could help encourage more into nursing’

A recent report on tackling drop-out rates among nursing students recommends that prospective students – particularly mature ones – have access to hardship funds to encourage them to consider a career in nursing.

The Health Education England RePAIR report (Reducing Pre-registration Attrition and Improving Retention) says survey responses from 3,447 students reveal that finances are the top reason why they consider leaving courses.

Many said that they are not able to earn enough, or any, money while studying and are either getting further into debt, or are  dependent on others to support them.

Others noted the financial challenges associated with clinical placements, such as travel and parking costs, and said that working shifts meant they struggled to find part-time paid employment.

Falling numbers of mature students applying for nursing degree programmes is a source of concern – 1,225 fewer were accepted onto courses in 2017, compared with 2016.

A recent Universities and Colleges Admissions Service analysis of mature students over 21 said the removal of the NHS bursary had contributed to a fall in nursing degree applications from this group. It said this group was ‘more debt-averse’, with decisions driven by financial considerations.


While the total amount of hardship payments has increased in England since the bursary was cut, the number of students receiving these payments has fallen slightly. Some suggest this may correlate to a drop in the number of student applications in 2017-18.


The number of mature nursing students in England has dropped by 16%, from 7,450 to 6,260, since 2016, the last year of bursary funding

Source: UCAS

There were 2,716 students who received hardship funds in 2017-18, down 90 on the previous year.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson says: ‘Nursing students are eligible for more financial support than in 2017 and, as these figures show, fewer required the hardship support this year compared with last year.’

At Birmingham City University, 103 nursing students received just over £103,000 in funding assistance in 2016-17. In 2017-18, the number of students who received assistance fell to 77 but the payments rose to more than £156,000.

‘Mature students are more risk-averse’

The university’s head of adult nursing, Kevin Crimmons, believes the biggest effect of removing the bursary has been a significant decline in applications, particularly by mature students aged over 25.

Mr Crimmons says: ‘We have seen that reflected in the number of applications at the university, particularly in that demographic.’

‘The government did not run any kind of national campaign to make the students affected aware of the allowances and support measures in place’

Kevin Crimmons, head of the department of adult nursing, Birmingham City University

He says mature students are more risk-averse, so the certainty of accruing student debt is putting them off applying–especially those who already have first degrees or have responsibilities such as children, mortgages or jobs.

‘The government did not run any kind of national campaign to make the students affected aware of the allowances and the support measures in place around student loans,’ he says.

‘Ministers are still wringing their hands about the huge number of nurse vacancies but doing little to support us in addressing that. The real message should be around the financial support available for students.


nursing students in the UK received financial help in 2017-18, compared with 4,121 in 2016-17

‘Few students know they can claim their travel expenses or receive a childcare grant.’

Needs and budget

Birmingham City University is trying to address this by employing a childcare consultant to help students with children understand what support is available to fit their needs and budget.

Mr Crimmons says nursing and subjects allied to healthcare are the only areas in which funding is available for a second degree.

‘We will always do everything we can for our students, but I feel there is more the government could do aside from making money available,’ he says.

‘It’s about making sure those wanting to come into the profession understand the financial support within the package the government has put together.’

Other universities saw a rise in both overall payments and the number of nursing students receiving them. The University of York paid £69,339 to 50 students in 2016-17 and £87,653 to 60 students after the bursary was cut.

But a spokesperson for the university says: ‘It is too early to establish a link between the removal of nursing bursaries and a rise in hardship payments, as there is currently only minimal data, which is still being assessed.’

How to access financial help

  • The RCN provides a money guide for nursing students, and says students experiencing hardship who have already contacted their university’s welfare department could contact the college’s Lamplight Support Service
  • Most universities offer financial grants or loans that nursing students may be eligible for. A London South Bank University spokesperson says it strives to ensure that hardship funding is awarded in a timely and targeted manner to those who need it most. The university also offers students practical debt advice tailored to their individual situation
  • The RCN Foundation is an independent charity that offers support, in the form of grants, scholarships and bursaries, to nursing students, nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants
  • Graduates with a non-nursing degree who are starting nurse training before March 2019 can apply for the RCN Foundation Margaret Parkinson Scholarship awards, worth up to £2,500 per year. Applications must be made by 5pm on 19 October


Stephanie Jones-Berry is a health journalist

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