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THE WORKERS PARTY

Raw deal for parent student nurses

By N Bryce (Workers GB Writers’ Group)

Schmutz: Masculine noun; Word forms: Schmutzes genitive, no plural: dirt (= Schlamm auch) mud die Handwerker haben viel Schmutz gemacht: the workmen have made a lot of mess.

The Tories have left student nursing in a shambles. In an NHS recruitment and retention crisis, according to a Nuffield Trust report of September 2023: “… one in eight nursing students dropped out during training…” The number of 18 year olds accepted onto nursing courses has dropped by 14% in the UK, whilst the number of mature students dropped by 22.5% in 2023. Dr Ashby, RCN deputy director for nursing commented that: “… people were being ‘put off by the prospect of debt, low salaries and poor working conditions’ during the current cost-of-living crisis.”

A matter of disparities

About a third of nursing students are over the age of 25, subsequently many have childcare responsibilities and struggle with astronomical childcare costs. Because they come under the category of students and not workers, these students are not entitled to the 30 hours free childcare available to working parents. Approximately half of student nurses’ course work is spent in placements where they are required to work 2,300 hours, often working 12 hour shifts. Equivalent training roles such as the police are classified as apprentices and are therefore entitled to the childcare allowance.

Nothing like a good bargain

Student nurses with parental responsibilities are also subject to the everyday stressors and strains of general nursing student life. A Nursing Times report on the RCN congress, headlined in their May 2023 edition that: “Student nurses are being used like free workforce”. Delegates at the congress said that students were used to “plug gaps in NHS staffing”. One student nurse stated: “…We can’t fix our NHS staff shortages in a sustainable way unless we protect student nurses. We get told, ‘we’ll manage’. But I’m being used as a free workforce. Well, it’s not free for me as I’m paying thousands of pounds a year. We need supernumerary status.” Another delegate talked of how: “excessive rostering and antisocial hours can adversely impact students completing theoretical parts of their programme.”

Ouch!

In 2017, Tories axed student nursing and midwives’ yearly £10,000 bursaries in England, under the bizarre reasoning that such a move would help in the shortfall of nurses, midwives and health visitors and increase training places. This move was about as popular as a dry colonoscopy and forced student nurses to take out maintenance and tuition loans. The move also led to the slashing of the numbers of applicants to these popular courses by 23% in the following year.

One student nurse as reported in the RCN magazine of November 2018 commented: “Since the bursary was scrapped, not only have student nurse numbers visibly dwindled, the drop in morale and motivation on the wards has also been evident.” iNews reported in December 2019 on the effects of abolishing the bursary for a single nursing student mother. She complained: “…her financial struggles are ‘soul destroying’” and she feared they were going to “‘break’ her.”

Because nursing students are proportionally older than the rest of the student population. Not only are they more likely to have families and higher living costs but may also, as a consequence, have acquired more debt and so would think twice before taking on a student loan that could take decades to pay off. Nursing students get around seven weeks in holiday breaks as opposed to 13 weeks afforded to the rest of the student population which again impacts on childcare costs.

Unison, in response to the axing of bursaries in 2017, calculated : “… that a student graduating in 2020 could leave with debts over £50,000, yet be starting out in the workplace on a salary under £23,000.”

BJ moves his lips

In 2019 following the axing of bursaries, the accumulation of schmutz continued with the Tories being roasted in the press for their central plank election manifesto promise of “50,000 more nurses” by 2024. The Independent reported: “Boris Johnson has publicly admitted that only 31,000 of Tories’ 50,000 more nurses pledge for the NHS will actually be new recruits.”

An effective way to boost nursing and allied healthcare numbers may have been to follow the 2020 RCN recommendations at the time such as: the reimbursement of tuition fees or the forgiveness of current debt due to removal of the bursary; abolition of self-funded tuition fees for all nursing, midwifery, and allied health care students starting in 2020/21 and beyond; and the introduction of universal living maintenance grants that reflect actual student need. However, the Tories chose to reintroduce the bursary scheme, slashing the original sum of £10,000 by 50%.

A bone was thrown to student nursing parents of an extra £1,000. Given the average cost of childcare is around £300 per week, this hardly touches the sides of the financial assistance this group of students actually need.

With the ceiling boards now creaking under the weight of Tory schmutz they recently heralded the fact they had reached their 50,000 target. However RCN analysis shows that since the 2019 target was set: “…patient waiting lists have grown 70%…while there’s only been a 16% increase in nursing staff… patient waiting list for elective care has grown more than 4 times faster than the number of nurses recruited.”

A slagheap of schmutz

In the midst of the worst staffing retention crisis in NHS history, with warnings the NHS waiting list will peak to 8 million this summer, the RCN reported in December 2023 that a total of £3.2bn was spent on agency staff by hospitals between 2020 and 2022, money which could have trained over 86,000 new nurses.

The NHS is now so heavily reliant on nursing recruitment from overseas, without which, Unison have reported, “the NHS would collapse.” Data from the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) showed a massive leap in internationally trained professional nurses joining their register, from 3,389 in 2017-18, to 23,367 in 2021-22. Whilst the NMC saw the highest number of domestic joiners by 25% in 2022, there was an equal number trained overseas from outside the European Economic Area.

A worrying trend has been higher unethical recruitment from ‘red list’ countries. Nursing Times reported: “… Professor Nicola Ranger, chief nurse of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said the NMC’s figures showed the UK had become over-reliant on “unethical international recruitment”.

Lions led by donkeys

Student nurses are crucial not only to the NHS as it currently stands but to its future also. The pressures on these students operating at the sharp end not only of an NHS crisis, but a cost of living crisis also is immense, with the knock on effect on their academic, financial and mental well-being as well as their family life.

From September this year, there will be a gradual extension of the 30 hours free childcare to working parents, starting with children from the age of nine months and then extended from September 2025 to parents of children under the age of five, however this still will not help nursing students who are parents.

In March 2023 the Guardian reported on a leaked internal document that warned NHS staff shortages in England could exceed 570,000 by 2036. To be a nursing student and a parent in today’s NHS takes courage, resilience and dedication, this path is not for the faint hearted. The Tories have adequately demonstrated they are as useless as their dodgy Covid PPE. A predicted Labour Party win at the next general election will unfortunately meet the nation’s abysmal expectations of them.

A way forward

The Workers Party of Britain has a clear vision for parents of young children wanting to join the UK’s workforce as well as NHS student parents. Our manifesto pledges: “the continued education and training of mothers or fathers or other carers during the vital early years of family life…” We will support parents who want to work and study and are committed to bringing “…back workers into the economy without them being disadvantaged in their careers by their absence from the workforce.”

A vote for the Workers Party of Britain at the next general election is a vote for parents who want to join the NHS and become our nurses of the future. Unencumbered by student debt and impossible childcare costs, student parents will be supported through their academic and placement journey and not treated as free labour in a crisis ridden NHS that mismanage billions on a quick fix for staff shortages, instead, using this money to invest in home grown, home trained nurses.

Read our manifesto here: Manifesto – Britain Deserves Better – Workers Party of Britain (workerspartybritain.org)

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