Commitments from political parties to return financial support for nursing students are welcome, but for Alliance universities to help resolve the NHS workforce crisis, investment must be made across the pipeline of education and delivery.
A crisis in the NHS workforce
Alliance Universities train over 56,000 nurses, midwives, occupational therapists and other allied healthcare professionals (AHPs) each year. A vital pipeline of talent for the nation’s health service, it has sadly become harder and harder to attract students to these courses, and support them once they have been enrolled.
Government policies and interventions over the last few years have decimated England’s NHS workforce and, with shortages of over 40,000 nurses, the situation has finally reached crisis point.
One such intervention was the scrapping of the bursary in 2016. A lifeline for many nursing students, the loss of financial support meant many were unable to take on the costs associated with studying or were forced to leave their courses. The impact was felt particularly by mature students and those with additional responsibilities, causing numbers to drop significantly.
It has been welcome, therefore, to see commitments from almost all political parties to (re)introduce a maintenance grant or equivalent for nursing students (although guarantees must be given that this is available to all allied healthcare students). If delivered, this financial support will bring welcome incentives to support the recruitment and retention of nurses.
However, while the bursary provided a much-needed safety net, its removal is not the only cause of current shortages, nor can it be the only solution. This is why we are supporting the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) #FundOurFuture campaign. RCN don’t just want the bursary reinstated, but are calling for over £1bn per year for nursing education across the board, from financial incentives for students to postgraduate routes and clinical placement planning.
A blockage in the system
It is vital that any future government makes investment in nursing education across the board because, for universities, recruiting students is just one part of the story. Once enrolled, there are many obstacles to retaining student nurses, in particular the availability of high quality, supervised clinical placements. In order to qualify, nursing students must spend half of their time training on the job, being supervised to practice their academic learning on real patients.
Critically decreasing staffing levels means there are limited staff within hospitals and practice to oversee students on placements and provide the much-needed clinical education. This creates a bottleneck for universities who are unable to ensure their students’ access to the clinical practice they need to complete their degree. As well as limiting the number of students who can qualify, many students on placement end up providing support for staff shortages. Having to provide care, for which they are not qualified, significantly impacts on the stress levels and well-being of students and in turn impacts on the standards of the workforce and ultimately the safety of patients.
Alliance universities are committed to delivering the highly qualified nurses and other AHPs our NHS needs, but without the government investing across the whole pipeline, they are stuck. This is why we are joining the Council of Deans of Health (CODH) in calling for greater funding to support placement infrastructure and capacity for clinical placements.
Coordinating policy solutions
Placements and financial support for students are still only two aspects of the problem. When it comes to training the NHS workforce, universities sit within a complex ecosystem, meaning that meeting the staffing crisis will require a radical policy intervention in workforce planning across this entire system, including recruitment, education, professional development and retention. Fixing just one part of the puzzle will not resolve this crisis.
Alliance universities are well placed to deliver innovative solutions to education and training challenges, such as offering new avenues for providing continual professional development. However, forging these new interventions will need coordinated policy development across providers and stakeholders.
Just as we stand side by side with the RCN and CODH, we are ready to work together with all professional bodies, delivery partners and the future government to develop solutions for the future of nursing education and finally solve this crisis.
In return, our next government must take action to build a sustainable and responsive workforce. They need to deliver an end-to-end nursing supply package, addressing all shortages and all roadblocks from financial support to placements; CPD to alternative pathways.
Only with this much-needed investment in nursing education, can Alliance Universities continue to deliver for the nation’s health.
We will be campaigning further on the NHS workforce in the coming months, to find out more, contact Beth@unialliance.ac.uk