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UNISON's Gail Adams on saving NHS Bursaries

Thursday 7 January 2016 NUS News

Gail Adams is Head of Nursing for UNISON, Britain's largest public sector trade union, which is campaigning to save the NHS bursary. Ahead of the parliamentary debate on whether to remove it, she tells us what the bursary means for student nurses and how we can all join the fight to save it.

What are NHS bursaries?

NHS Student Bursaries is part of Student Services and is supplied by the NHS Business Services Authority (BSA). BSA award and pay NHS Bursaries to students on pre-registration health professional training courses according to the NHS Bursary Scheme as published by the Department of Health.

In England, student nurses, midwives and allied health professionals are entitled to a combination of a non-means tested bursary, a means-tested bursary and a ‘reduced rate’ student loan.

What changes are the government planning to make?

In the autumn statement, George Osborne announced the scrapping of the NHS bursary for new student nurses, midwives and allied health professions in England from 2017. The NHS bursary system will be replaced with the standard undergraduate system, with fees of up to £9,000 and a much larger student loan for maintenance.

What impact will these changes have on student nurses?

These changes would see students burdened with at least £51,600 of debt, plus interest and any overdraft and commercial debt. This is an enormous sum for many in these professions: for example, the current starting salary for a nurse is £21,692. Loan repayments will mean a nurse, midwife or allied health professional will lose over £900 a year.

One of the reasons healthcare courses remain popular is that the funding arrangements are different and act as an incentive in comparison with other university programmes. Scrapping the NHS bursary is likely to discourage people from considering becoming a nurses, midwifes or allied health professionals, exacerbating the current recruitment crisis.

A pre-registration degree requires significant time spent in clinical practice, including early, late, night and weekend shifts as a normal part of their studies. For example, nursing students must complete a minimum of 2,300 hours in clinical practice over the course of their studies. These changes effectively charge students for working in the NHS.  

The best asset of the NHS is its workforce. The best way to make the most of this asset is to invest in the future workforce. By scrapping the NHS bursary and uncoupling workforce planning from education commissioning the government are taking a risk with the future of patient safety and care delivery.

The government needs to reconsider these proposals and discuss how best we invest in and support students, rather than making a reckless decision driven by the desire to achieve deficit targets. In his report on the Mid-Staffordshire inquiry, Sir Robert Francis said: “If there is one thing I can be certain of, it is this: people should come before money.” We need to ensure the Government is held to this standard.

What’s happening on Saturday 9 January?

On Saturday 9 January 2016, a march in London to Save the NHS Bursary has been organised by King’s College student nurses and midwives. The march will start at St Thomas’ Hospital at 12pm, walk down York Road to Waterloo Bridge, across the Strand and Whitehall before finishing outside Downing Street, where a selection of speakers will talk about the impact of the NHS bursary.

UNISON Northern has also organised a rally in Newcastle in protest at government plans to remove the NHS bursary on the same day. The rally will take place from 1pm at Grey’s Monument in Newcastle City Centre. Speakers include UNISON regional convenor Clare Williams, Chi Onwurah, Newcastle Central MP, a representative from the BMA and also a student nurse.

What’s happening on Monday 11 January?

On Monday 11 January 2016, Parliament will be debating a parliamentary petition on the NHS bursary cuts which reached over 150,000 signatures.

The debate itself will be broadcast live and subsequently available on

If you want to contact your local MP before the debate to encourage them to take part and raise the issues that concern you, you can find out who they are and how to contact them here:

What can students, SUs and officers do to help?

Students, SUs and officers can help to save the NHS bursary by: