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Nursing and midwifery students must be recognised for the significant contribution they have made and the disruption they have faced during the coronavirus pandemic, according to unions who are calling for the abolition of tuition fees and reimbursement of those already paid.
The move comes as the Nursing and Midwifery Council said over 25,000 students from across the UK had chosen to join NHS frontline staff via extended clinical placements, in the response to the Covid 19 crisis.
“We ask that you acknowledge their selfless service”
The Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives, Unison and National Union of Students (NUS) have today written to health and social care secretary Matt Hancock urging him to “acknowledge students’ selfless service, not only with words, but in a tangible and quantifiable way”.
Their aim is to see the government wipe tuition fees for healthcare students in England and reimburse those already paid.
Student nurses in England formerly did not have to pay tuition fees because these were covered by the government through the bursary. But this offer was cut by the government for all nursing students starting after 1 August 2017.
While the government has recently pledged to introduce new yearly maintenance grants to cover living costs, starting from September 2020, students will still be paying around £9,000 a year for tuition.
Related news on student funding
The unions said the coronavirus pandemic meant now was the time for minister to recognise the contribution of students by “dropping the debt, abolishing tuition fees and building a workforce fit for the present, and the future”.
Under emergency plans put in place by the NMC and its partners, all student nurses apart from first years are able to take up paid clinical placements to support frontline colleagues during the pandemic.
Third-year students in the last six months of their course are also able to extend their final three-month placement into a six-month placement and still get the chance to qualify at the end of it. The NMC may also introduce a temporary register for students, but this has not happened yet.
The letter (see PDF attached below) from the unions called on the health secretary to reimburse tuition fees or forgive current debt for all current nursing, midwifery, and allied healthcare students and abolish student-funded tuition fees those starting in 2020-21 and beyond.
In addition, the unions have asked the government to introduce universal living maintenance grants that “reflect actual student need”.
“Now is the time for the government to recognise the ongoing contribution of student nurses”
Dame Donna Kinnair
The unions also reminded Mr Hancock of the concerns they raised when the policy of tuition fees was first suggested – and how those concerns, including a shortfall in nurses and financial hardship for students, have been borne out.
But they said the current crisis and its impact on students who had either joined the workforce, or were continuing with their education, placed the “unfairness” of tuition fees for students in England “into even starker focus”.
“Thousands of healthcare students have joined the NHS and social care frontline since this pandemic began, eager to support their qualified colleagues,” it said.
The letter added: “We ask that you acknowledge their selfless service, not only with words, but in a tangible and quantifiable way.”
Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, highlighted how there had been a 31% reduction in university applications for nursing courses since 2016 – when the bursary was axed.
She said this was a “major reason why the nursing workforce in England entered the Covid-19 crisis with almost 40,000 unfilled posts – and with one arm effectively tied behind its back”.
“Many student nurses have elected to become an invaluable part of the workforce at a time when the country needs them most, but they are still paying tuition fees, and this is simply not right,” added Dame Donna.
“Now is the time for the government to recognise the ongoing contribution of student nurses by dropping the debt, abolishing tuition fees and building a workforce fit for the present, and the future.”
These views were echoed by Gill Walton, chief executive and general secretary of the RCM, who said: “Our students make an invaluable contribution to the health of our country, both during and after their training.
“Never has that been more apparent than during this current crisis, not only with those formally entering the workforce but many others volunteering in health and care settings.”
“The policy of tuition fees for those in studying for healthcare degrees is, and always has been, a flawed one, as it does not take into account the considerable time spent on clinical placements,” said Ms Walton. “Now is the time to put right this wrong.”
“The government can show the depth of its gratitude by writing off their student fees”
In addition, general secretary of Unison, Dave Prentis, praised healthcare students who had “stepped up to the plat to help the NHS through the current crisis”.
“Having racked up thousands of pounds of debt while learning the skills we so desperately need, many are now working alongside their more senior colleagues,” said Mr Prentis.
“The government can show the depth of its gratitude by writing off their student fees. When the pandemic has passed, it must scrap them for all healthcare students in future and introduce proper maintenance support.”
Meanwhile, NUS vice-president welfare Eva Crossan Jory said the contribution of healthcare students had “for too long” not been “adequately recognised”.
“The very cohorts of healthcare students currently experiencing unparalleled disruption to their education and volunteering to work on the frontline against coronavirus are those who were also forced by the government to pay tuition fees and study without an NHS bursary,” she said.
“We urge the government to commit to a radical new financial settlement for these students and all those to come.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are grateful to all students who choose to support out NHS during this extremely difficult time and will be ensuring all students who do opt-in are rewarded fairly for their hard work.”