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Williamson: Covid-19 nursing students must pay fees

Department for Education says volunteer nurses will still pay tuition fees

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has said that student nurses who work for the NHS during the Covid-19 pandemic must pay their tuition fees, despite widespread calls for them to be exempt.

In a letter dated 2 June, Williamson told the chair of the House of Commons education committee and Conservative MP Robert Halfon that final year students who had chosen to work on the NHS frontline during the coronavirus “will continue to be required to pay fees for their final term”.

His decision comes after ongoing confusion about whether students who worked for the NHS during the pandemic would continue to pay tuition fees. NHS England, the Department for Health and Social Care, Health Education England and the Department for Education had been unable to tell us.

Research Professional News’s Our Debt, Not Theirs campaign has been calling for the government to immediately guarantee that student nurses who have supported the NHS during the pandemic will not be liable for tuition fees while they are working, and later for all nurses to have their tuition fee debt cancelled.

Four unions—Unison, the National Union of Students, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Nursing—have also called for tuition fees for nurses to be scrapped. The government has promised an extra 50,000 nurses by 2025, but the number of applications for nursing degrees has fallen by a third since grants were abolished in 2017.

Halfon, who has written supportively about our campaign, also asked prime minister Boris Johnson for clarity on the situation last month. Labour MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Universities Daniel Zeichner and shadow universities minister Emma Hardy have also expressed support for our campaign.

In the letter, Williamson said universities “will continue to provide support to students” and explained that time students spend in clinical practice “will count towards the number of practice hours that they need to qualify”. He also confirmed that students who volunteered to work with the NHS would receive a salary and pension benefits, and any student maintenance Learning Support Fund payments.

Williamson stressed that the government “is extremely grateful to all students who are choosing to work in the NHS during this extremely difficult time and will be ensuring all students who do so are rewarded fairly for their hard work”.

Eva Crossan Jory, vice-president for welfare at the National Union of Students, said the students suffering disruption to their courses and working on the Covid-19 frontlines “are those who were also forced by the government to pay tuition fees and study without an NHS bursary”.

“We urge the Government to rethink this decision and commit to a radical new financial settlement for these students and all those to come,” she added.

On Research Professional News today, former universities minister Chris Skidmore suggests a key worker grant, which students would not have to repay, could lead to better retention rates in healthcare disciplines.

“The signal that nursing leads to a rewarding career without worrying about your student debt evidently would have a strong appeal,” he writes.