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Our Debt, Not Theirs: campaign launches

Growing unity in call for government to scrap nursing tuition fees as we launch campaign

Research Professional News has today launched a campaign calling for an immediate guarantee from the government that student nurses who have joined the NHS to support its fight against Covid-19 will not be liable for tuition fees while they are working.

The “Our Debt, Not Theirs” campaign urges the government to take action on two issues. First, Research Professional News wants the government to guarantee that students engaged on the NHS front line during the coronavirus pandemic will not have to pay tuition fees while they work.

Once that guarantee is in place, the government must take action to reimburse tuition fees or forgive tuition fee debt for all current nursing, midwifery and allied healthcare students. This is something Unison, the National Union of Students, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Nursing asked health secretary Matt Hancock to commit to on 6 May.

Final-year nursing students in their last six months of study have been able to join the NHS early, while all other students except first-year learners have been encouraged to work for the NHS during the coronavirus crisis.

Although the Department for Education has confirmed that students will still receive maintenance loans next term regardless of whether they study or work for the NHS—for which they receive a salary—it has not made guarantees on whether students are still liable to pay tuition fees.

During a House of Commons education committee hearing on 29 April, Conservative MP and committee chair Robert Halfon asked education secretary Gavin Williamson to make sure nursing students were “not paying for tuition that they are not receiving”. Halfon asked the question after Research Professional News raised the issue with him.

While Williamson promised to respond, Research Professional News understands the committee has not yet received an answer.

Pledging his support to our campaign, Daniel Zeichner, Labour MP for Cambridge and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Universities, said: “The government is happy to praise health staff and care workers but, as we saw again at Prime Minister’s Questions, is not prepared to put its money where its mouth is. Student nurses are too often thrown into the front line—they should not be paying fees, particularly in these most difficult times.”

His colleague Emma Hardy, Labour’s shadow universities minister, stressed that the party was opposed to tuition fees. “The government really must ask themselves whether it is appropriate to ask students to pay tuition fees as a price of working to save lives during the coronavirus crisis,” she said. Her thoughts were echoed by shadow science minister, Chi Onwurah. 

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the coronavirus crisis had “exposed the fundamental weaknesses of a funding system built on student fees”. “Nursing and healthcare students have really stepped up to the plate on the Covid front line, and this campaign is right to point out how wrong it would be to saddle them with decades of debt that they would still be paying off long after this pandemic is over,” she added.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of the Unison union, said healthcare students had “stepped up to the plate to help the NHS” during the pandemic, having “racked up thousands of pounds of debt while learning the skills we so desperately need”.

Prentis said: “The government can show the depth of its gratitude by writing off their student fees. When the pandemic has passed, it must scrap them for all healthcare students in future and introduce proper maintenance support.”

On 20 May, Research Professional News asked the Department for Education for its latest stance on whether nursing students working for the NHS during the pandemic were still liable to pay tuition fees.

A spokeswoman for the department said: “We are grateful to all students who choose to support our NHS during this extremely difficult time and will be ensuring all students who do opt in are rewarded fairly for their hard work. We urge others to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.”

Follow the campaign on Twitter and add your backing at #ourdebtnottheirs.