Student loans are the future – and it doesn’t have to be bleak

The battle to save the bursary has been lost. Everyone involved in nursing education needs to focus on getting the best out of the new system of student loans, says university faculty dean Sue West.

The battle to save the bursary has been lost. Everyone involved in nursing education needs to focus on getting the best out of the new system of student loans, says university faculty dean Sue West  

Loan application
Picture: Alamy

The switch from bursaries to loans did not come as a shock to many universities. The status quo – continuing with student bursaries to fund the training of nursing, midwifery and allied health professionals – was not a viable option in the current financial climate.

Removing the cap on nursing student places, another key element of the proposed reform, does not necessarily mean universities will increase the number of student recruits. The number will, in reality, be governed by the availability of clinical placements and the non-medical tariff to support these placements. There are still questions around how the tariff money will be managed.

Unsurprisingly, there was a collective ‘stamping of feet’ after the changes were announced last November. In the period between the announcement and the end of the consultation in June, there was little to alleviate the concerns of prospective students, employers and universities. But now is the time to put the matter into perspective and focus on the future.

And perhaps this future is not as bleak as some first feared when the changes were announced. At our recent open days we heard prospective students say: ‘I want to be a nurse and if that means taking on a loan like other university students then so be it.’

Understanding funding

However, universities must recognise that the prospect of a large debt at the end of their training will be daunting issue for many people. We have an important role to play in ensuring that our prospective students understand the funding process, what the loan means to them and what support funding is available. The benefits of a career in health care, even if now self-funded, also need to be highlighted.

There is an argument that because students now have to invest in their degrees there will be less attrition. This may be the case but what is sure to happen is increased levels of expectation from students about not only their academic study, but also the quality of their placements.

Buckinghamshire New University is proud of our strong model which ensures that our students’ placements are an effective part of their training. We achieve this by working in partnership with our students’ mentors in NHS trusts and by ensuring students receive regular visits from link lecturers during their placements.

Bursary proposal

It’s also important to consider the impact of the proposed reforms on those who wish to pursue postgraduate pre-qualifying programmes. Under the new system, students applying for these courses will not be eligible for student loans. Concerns about this were raised in the recent consultation, and there is now a proposal to extend the bursary to 2017-18 for these students, with a further review to be published in the autumn. 

Without such a concession, recruitment on these programmes is likely to drop with more students opting to undertake a second degree instead. Clearly this would be neither cost effective nor supportive of continuous professional development. Such programmes are highly valued by employers and I believe that an exception should be made to enable these courses to fall under the student loans system.

The change in health education funding is here to stay and universities must be flexible in responding to these developments in a positive way. Likewise, service providers must focus on quality enhancement of practice learning placements for students.

The NHS is on the brink of a period of change and with this comes uncertainty. For my part, I am determined to ensure that we continue to provide a first class experience to our nursing students.

These students are the future of our nursing workforce and we must all do everything we can to support their learning journey.

Sue West

Sue West is dean at Buckinghamshire New University's faculty of society and health

This article is for subscribers only