Comment

Government plans to axe student bursaries are based on spurious evidence

Let’s face it, nurse education is big business for British universities. The lobby group of universities offering nursing degrees, the Council of Deans of health (CoDH), argues that the true cost of nursing degrees is subsidised by their members.

Let’s face it, nurse education is big business for British universities. The lobby group of universities offering nursing degrees, the Council of Deans of health (CoDH), argues that the true cost of nursing degrees is subsidised by their members.

Given the uproar over bursary cuts, we must not forget the income that universities receive from nurse education. This revenue, which has flowed into universities since they assimilated the old NHS training schools, enables vast teaching and research capacity as well as new campus real estate. Some of the newest campus buildings even have plaques on them celebrating their NHS links.

After the bursary cuts (forget the consultation), universities will become responsible not only for running nurse education under light touch Nursing and Midwifery Council regulation, but also for its funding. This completes the denationalisation of nurse education by outsourcing it to the universities.

While the switch to university fees is spectacularly unpopular with students, it is very popular with the CoDH which says nursing students will be wealthier paying university fees. From September 2017 to become a registered nurse in a British university will cost, conservatively, £40,000 (more if maintenance costs are factored in). This has arisen partly due to CoDH lobbying and partly because this government treats nurse education as a utility, like gas or railways, to be outsourced at cost within the market. The government and CoDH quote spurious evidence; for example, that two out of three applicants for every degree course are rejected (Department of Health 2016), and that high drop-out rates plague nursing degrees (Christie & Co, 2015). These arguments are seductive and hard to counter using arguments about quality, vocation or the right applicant, because in so doing one may be dismissed as archaic.

What should be debated is how bursary cuts will remove the student nurse number cap. It is a debate over educating nurses by creating an open market and enabling larger numbers of students, via loans, to enter universities as fee-payers. In this way nurse degree funding, previously the remit of the Department of Health, becomes the responsibility of the universities.

After cuts, the pernicious argument that investing in your career by paying university fees will become even more difficult to counter, when no alternative exists to having to pay ever higher fees to become a nurse.

This will be a money earner for British universities, even though there is nowhere to seat more students on campuses. Then there are issues universities have recruiting and retaining nurse lecturers who are academically prepared nurses holding recordable education qualifications. More difficulties will arise in the NHS as little extra placement capacity exists for students to learn safe practice.

Universities seem to be paying little heed to these issues, while our government only cares about headlines such as ‘Conservatives train thousands more nurses’ and the opportunities for universities to generate income. There may be greater market entry by for-profit universities with fierce competition among the rest. After bursary cuts there could also be a race to the bottom as we scramble to recruit students from a dwindling supply of home-grown talent.

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