The right course at the right time: becoming a mature nursing student

A former teacher on overcoming the challenges in choosing a nursing career later in life

Former teacher Lenka Huntley on overcoming the challenges associated with choosing a nursing career later in life

Fewer mature students are applying to nursing degree courses, following the loss of the
bursary in England. Picture: iStock

People with life experience are supposed to be valuable assets to the nursing profession, yet their numbers are steadily in decline. Since the removal of the NHS bursary for nursing degree courses in England in 2017, the number of mature students applying to study nursing has fallen significantly.

This is hardly a surprise, given the financial hardship nursing students face during their demanding course. If you are a mature student, you are more likely to have dependents and less likely to have backup from your parents. 

When you have bills to pay and children to feed, you can hardly embark on a three-year journey with no income and astronomical debts at the end of training.

Alternative career paths

The undergraduate degree is not the only route into nursing – healthcare assistants (HCAs) and other existing healthcare staff, along with school or college students, can apply to do a nursing degree apprenticeship or nursing associate course, with training costs funded by the employer while the trainee continues to work in the NHS.

But not everyone who wants to study nursing will be able to take up these opportunities. Many highly capable HCAs may never become nurses unless government policy on funding nurse education changes. Unfortunately, such changes do not seem to be on the horizon any time soon.   

I am one of the lucky ones – my husband can pay the bills and feed our child so I can afford the luxury of no income for three years. But I still had a few hurdles to overcome on my journey to becoming a nursing student.

Stiff competition

When you decide that nursing is the career for you, and that your family can withstand the financial burden during and after the training, that doesn’t automatically mean you will get onto a course.

There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of potential candidates, many of whom are A-level students. Training a nurse is an expensive business, so university places are understandably limited.

You might be welcomed with open arms on some branches, such as mental health or learning disability nursing, but I had my eyes set on the most popular branch with limited places – children’s nursing.

‘I might be in a position to forgo a decent income, but paying almost £30,000 for the privilege of being a student for three years would be pushing it too far’

This seemed the obvious choice for me, given my previous career as a secondary school teacher. In addition, my role as a parent has fostered in me an incredible empathy with other parents that I didn’t possess previously.

But deciding on this new career path still wasn’t easy. For starters, I was a complete novice in the hospital environment, my only experience being a 24-hour stay on a labour ward when my daughter was born.

I also spent four years as a stay-at-home mum, which was beneficial for our family but less so for my CV or confidence. Determined to get on the right path, I started volunteering on a community ward, and after a year I managed to get a job as a HCA in a children’s hospital.

Finding funding

I was getting closer to standing a chance with my nursing application, and not getting lost among all those eager school leavers. But when I started looking into tuition fees, my spirits were dampened again.

Under normal rules, you are only granted a student loan once. If you already have a degree, you are automatically disqualified from getting a loan and have to finance yourself completely.

Given my first degree and Postgraduate Certificate in Education, I realised this would be the case for me. I might be in a position to forgo a decent income in the near future, but paying almost £30,000 for the privilege of being a nursing student for three years would be pushing it too far.

Thankfully, a recent positive change to the loans system stopped me from giving up all together; students applying for a second degree on health-related courses are now eligible for a loan, and so I was finally ready to send in my UCAS application.

‘I knew that at 45 years old I would probably be the oldest. I felt a bit lost and wished there were more mature students like myself’

A few months later, I had an interview invitation. Feeling well-prepared, having brushed up on my maths and my knowledge of the NHS, I still felt nervous because I knew there was no shortage of candidates for children’s nursing.

One of the first things that struck me when I attended my interview was the make up of the applicant group – in a room of about 30 candidates, all were female and just two of us were parents. 

I knew that at 45 years old I would probably be the oldest. I felt a bit lost and wished there were more mature students like myself. Shouldn’t a children’s nursing course have more parents with experience of children? Although I found the interview hard, I knew I had done well. A few days later I had my offer. 

Right time

I start my nursing degree in September and am both excited and terrified. I will likely feel ancient compared to the other students; my nearly perimenopausal brain doesn’t work as fast as it used to, and my memory betrays me sometimes.

I will also have to juggle studying and placements with family life and childcare. No doubt, I will feel guilty about not spending enough time with my four year old, and I will never have enough time to write assignments.

But I know I wouldn’t have considered doing children’s nursing as an 18 year old because I would not have been suited to it then. Instead, I can say with complete confidence that this is the right time in my life to undertake this new career, and I am ready for it.

Lenka Huntley starts her degree in children’s nursing in September 2019

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