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Fast-tracked nurses and medics could still be paying tuition fees

Nursing and medical students asked to join the Covid-19 front line may incur debt

Emergency education standards are being introduced to free up more nursing and medical students to help the NHS as the coronavirus pandemic stretches resources. However, there is confusion about whether students would be liable for tuition fees as part of a clinical placement.

All nursing and midwifery students except first-year learners will be able to opt into paid placements with frontline NHS staff, which will see them spend just 20 per cent of their time on academic work. Time spent in clinical practice will count towards students’ practice hours, the Nursing and Midwifery Council said on 25 March. Under normal circumstances such work-based hours would attract tuition fees.

The Council of Deans of Health, which represents university nursing and healthcare faculties, will work with universities to ensure students who do not opt into the programme are not disadvantaged and can continue their academic work. Universities must also ensure students can “progress their nursing and midwifery studies in the normal way” once the coronavirus emergency is over.

However, a spokesperson for the council told Research Professional News that while all the details were still being worked out in a fast moving situation, it was their understanding that students who volunteer to work in the NHS will still be considered as doing academic work and will be liable for fees.

The Nursing and Midwifery Council said it would “continue to monitor the emergency situation” and would “take account of the impact in the longer term on these students”, and it stressed that nursing students must still be supervised while they work.

It extends an earlier announcement allowing nursing students to take the final six months of their course as a clinical placement.  The Royal College of Nursing, which represents nurses, said it would be working with students “to make sure their best interests are served” during the pandemic.

Donna Kinnair, Royal College of Nursing chief executive, said it was important to make sure students are “fully supported, supervised and remunerated for their valuable contribution” to the NHS during the pandemic. “These arrangements are voluntary and students will not be disadvantaged if they decide that they’re not able to work in clinical practice, for whatever reason,” she said.

Nursing is still recovering from a sharp drop in student numbers after former prime minister Theresa May in 2017 scrapped nursing grants and introduced loans. An 11 per cent drop in student recruitment was reported between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years.

Final year medical students are also being given the chance to join the NHS earlier than planned. A joint statement signed on 25 March by UK health departments and medical councils revealed they will “expedite qualification” for trainee doctors, and medical schools “are advised to provide additional opportunities for students to take finals as a first sit where necessary”.

Health Education England and the Department for Health and Social Care have been approached for clarity on the question of whether students opting into work in the NHS will also be liable for tuition fees.