Council of Deans of Health and Universities UK should stick to their primary purpose

Scrapping nursing bursaries and bringing in tuition fees will do nothing to address workforce planning issues, says health consultant Tom Bolger

Since when has it been the role of the Council of Deans of Health (CoDH) and Universities UK (UUK) to reduce the cost of education to the taxpayer and eradicate boom and bust workforce planning?

Their constitution states that their ‘primary purpose is teaching, scholarship and research, financial accountability and independence, and accountability to students and the wider public’. Their proposal to scrap nursing bursaries and bring in tuition fees does nothing to achieve any of these purposes, and will do little or nothing to reduce the cost of education to the taxpayer or address inadequate workforce planning.

Students would be front-loaded with debt that their future career earnings are unlikely to enable them to pay back, restricting their opportunities to enter the housing market and enjoy a decent standard of living. Not much accountability to students and the wider public there.

In 2013 in England, around £11 billion of university funding came from public sector contributions. Introducing student loans for nursing students won’t reduce the burden on the taxpayer, it will merely shift it to the individual, who is also a taxpayer. Incidentally, CoDH is funded by the universities so the government is also contributing to their running costs. Does this have any impact on their financial independence and the drivers behind this report?

Workforce planning is primarily the role of employers, not universities. This has been woeful for generations and is an indictment of NHS and independent sector employers, whose short-term mentality leaves them unwilling or unable to find the seed-corn investment funds needed to secure the workforce of the future.

Scrapping nursing bursaries will do nothing to address this, and may even make it worse. Not only will it put poorer people off nursing, it will cause some who might have considered nursing to look instead at courses leading to careers which are better remunerated.

Employers would do well to look at incentives for students and ensure they have good learning experiences when on placements. They should offer soft-option ‘golden hellos’, such as free gym membership, paying Nursing & Midwifery Council registration fees and funding professional development. This, plus decent workforce projections, would go some way to sorting the problems. Scrapping student bursaries would do the opposite.

I suggest that CoDH and UUK would do better to focus on their primary purpose. Rather than dabbling in the politics of student loans, they should concentrate on encouraging and developing imaginative, flexible and inspiring courses that will motivate students and enhance retention.

They should address the quality of practice placements and the support offered to students. They should concentrate on improving the quality of tuition, introduce innovative assessment schemes, and explore step on, step off courses that reflect the pressures on mature students with family commitments.

They should explore bespoke in-service programmes and sandwich courses leading to registration, and they should try listening to students and their representatives. Only when they have sorted these things out can they afford the luxury of meddling in other people’s business.

About the author

Tom Bolger is a health consultant and former director of education at the RCN. You can find him on Twitter @TomBolger


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