Major reforms needed to healthcare education to tackle workforce shortages, unions warn

Eleanor Busby

A radical overhaul of the healthcare education system in England is needed to tackle significant workforce shortages facing the sector, an alliance of unions has warned.

An open letter, shared exclusively with The Independent, calls for nursing, midwifery and allied health students to receive greater financial support to help solve the recruitment crisis in the NHS.

The alliance, which includes the National Union of Students (NUS), the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives, says too few students are being trained to work in the profession.

The letter, signed by leaders of six unions who represent healthcare students, says shortages have led to an environment that is “not conducive to high quality care or patient safety”.

Ahead of next week’s general election, the alliance is calling on the political parties to go further with their pledges and to take “urgent, holistic and meaningful action”.

In 2017, the government removed bursaries, requiring nurses and midwives in England to pay £9,000-a-year in fees and living costs, which led to the drop in the numbers studying nursing.

The unions are now calling on the political parties to abolish the current student loan system of tuition fees for nursing, midwifery and allied health students to reverse a decline in applications.

They say universal, living maintenance grants should be introduced for these students to improve retention and to help tackle around 100,000 current vacancies across the NHS.

The letter warns: “Students in England studying healthcare courses today are often struggling with living costs and dropping out as a result.

“Their wellbeing is jeopardised by a system which provides insufficient financial support and often forces them to undertake part-time work alongside their intensive studies.”

Eva Crossan Jory, vice president for welfare at NUS, one of the signatories of the letter, told The Independent: “Since the removal of the bursary the number of people applying to study nursing in England has fallen by more than 13,000.

“The problem is particularly acute for mature-students as we have seen a 41 per cent decline in applications from people over 25 over the same period.”

She added:​ “These changes have already made certain courses vulnerable and it will soon be impossible for the NHS to maintain sufficient staffing numbers unless urgent action is taken.”

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