Danielle is a student nurse who usually spends her time studying and taking care of patients, but on Wednesday 2 December she stood outside the Department of Health in front of 500 others with a megaphone in her hand. This is the story of how they got there…
Seven days earlier
Seven days before, Chancellor George Osborne stood up in Parliament and told MPs and the country that he plans to scrap the NHS bursary.
This bursary - a small amount of money given out monthly - is for student nurses, midwives, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, and other health staff whose training is moving towards a graduate qualification.
It was set up as an acknowledgement that these groups of health staff have to work (without pay) for the NHS for half the time they are training.
Removing the bursary doesn’t apply to current nursing students; it means those who start training in 2017 – the future staff of the NHS - will complete their three years of work-based training with a minimum of £51,600 debt. When a nurse first starts working as a graduate they earn £21,692, and this starting salary is unlikely to be much more for the nurses graduating in 2020.
While students of many other university courses graduate with the possibility of going on to high paying jobs, the majority of nurses never earn more than a basic salary of £28,000 per year. Lots of them earn considerably less.
Danielle loves her job. She loves spending time with patients, she loves that she can be there for them when they need her, and she loves that she gets to be there when they stop needing her. She’s already excelling at nursing and looks set to make an exemplary nurse. But getting here wasn’t easy. She’s not from a wealthy background and she had to work hard, paying for her own access course to get to university and being careful with money. She wouldn’t – she is adamant – have gone into nursing if it meant being burdened with £50,000 worth of debt.
While many students are able to get part-time jobs in bars or cafes to fund their studies, healthcare students are different: they are required to work in placements in order to qualify. Nursing and midwifery students have to work a minimum of 2,300 hours in shifts – that is the equivalent of 328 seven-hour days of work, or 191 twelve-hour shifts. And this isn’t just shadowing someone; it is full-on-responsible, high-pressured, life-saving work. They work early shifts, late shifts and weekend shifts, and they have to fit their lives round rapidly changing schedules. Forty-hour weeks are the norm.
Universities discourage their healthcare students from having second jobs as part-time work can leave students tired and affect patient safety. Even so, many healthcare students do take second jobs because they feel they have no choice.
The NHS bursary, then, is part of the reason people from poorer backgrounds are able to go into nursing. And this is a good thing for all of us; research suggests that the NHS gives the best care when its workforce reflects the society it is caring for.
Danielle thinks that younger versions of herself looking to get into nursing will be deterred by the debt they’ll have to bear. And she’s not the only one.
Outside the Department of Health were many healthcare students worried about the future of the NHS. As well as nurses, student midwives were there to say that the future midwives - the ones who will deliver our future babies - should not be weighed down by £50,000 debt.
Mostly under thirty and mostly female, the group stood behind a barrier and sang songs of defiance with #paynotpoverty written in glitter on their cheeks. They cheered as a succession of young women, new to public speaking, stood on a chair and told the crowd about how they wouldn’t be in nursing if it weren’t for the bursary.
One woman called Helen stood up and read out a poem on healthcare. A 29-year-old student nurse in her second year of studying, Helen is deeply passionate about nursing. She came to nursing later in life and she has a mortgage and bills to pay. Helen is concerned that without the bursary the people who really want to be nurses – the types we’d all like to be treated by – will choose a different career.
“We need the people who really want to be nurses to be able to study nursing, not only the ones who can pay for it.”
One group of people who are particularly likely to be deterred from a nursing career by the hefty debt is those with children. This is a worry, because currently over 50% of health care students have childcare responsibilities. Another woman campaigning outside the Department of Health with Danielle is 22-year-old mum Marina.
Marina had a child at 16. She says that the people around her decided she wouldn’t make much of herself, so she decided she would. Marina went back to school, did GCSEs, did A Levels, did an access course, and is now at university. She smiles a lot and says she’s studying mental health nursing because she is hopeful and wants to pass that hope on.
Like Danielle and Helen, Marina says she would have been daunted at the prospect of £50,000 debt and wouldn’t have trained to be a nurse without the bursary. She’s infused with energy for mental health nursing and is clearly determined to do all she can to help her patients. There’s one part of Marina’s story that really shows how vital the bursary is: “when my bursary is late I have to take my daughter to a food bank.”
Standing outside the Department of Health was only the beginning of the campaign to Save the NHS bursary. A petition has already been signed by over 145,000 people, campaigners secured a debate in Parliament on 15 December and another is taking place on 11 January.
Nurses, midwives, and other healthcare staff spend their lives caring for us. Please join UNISON in caring for them now and get involved in the campaign.