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Help for the helpers

Image: Chris McAndrews [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Government must clarify whether student nurses on the frontline should pay tuition, says Robert Halfon

Across the country, many people have stepped forward during the Covid-19 pandemic to help others and their communities cope in these uncertain and troubling times—from teachers and school staff looking after vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, to supermarket employees making sure we have enough to eat. At the frontline of this battle against the virus, health workers have continued to work every day to look after those suffering.

Among our NHS heroes are thousands who have volunteered to work in hospitals. This includes the final-year student nurses who were enrolled on a temporary register to enable them to work on coronavirus wards. 

We should all be thanking these people for their commitment and ensuring everything is done to support and reward their hard work. But while Health Education England has promised that none of them will suffer financially as a result of their vital service, there is still no clarity on whether they will continue to pay tuition fees while they are providing it.

As chair of the House of Commons’ education committee, I have asked the education secretary to explain whether those helping on the frontline will be expected to continue to pay fees during the pandemic. The government has scrapped the extra charge NHS staff and care workers from overseas were having to pay towards the health service. In the same way, student nurses working in the NHS should be financially supported in every way possible.

The question of fees throws new light on the training of nurses and the best way they can be supported at the start of their careers. I have always been a strong advocate of nursing degree apprenticeships and I hope there can now be a renewed focus on this underused method for entering such a valued profession.

Degree apprenticeships allow nurses to earn while they learn and take some of the financial worries away from students who should be concentrating on studying. Learning is done in a flexible way and fits around work commitments. Tuition fees are paid and at the end students receive a full degree in one of the most employable of fields.

Apprenticeships help people climb the education ladder of opportunity and play an important role in plugging the nation’s skills gaps. Degree apprenticeships should be seen as the jewel in the crown of technical education.

Yet despite the benefits of nursing degree apprentice-ships—and the government’s commitment to deliver 50,000 more nurses by 2025—there have been just 1,800 nursing apprentices since the scheme started in 2017. The number of applications for nursing degrees has fallen by a third since the abolition of bursaries, and there has been a drop in applications from mature students. While the return of bursaries is welcome, there is more work to be done to attract students to this most valuable of professions. 

In the last parliament, my committee, made up of members from different parties across the House of Commons, called for a much sharper focus on the nursing degree apprenticeships programme. As the figures show, uptake has been far too slow, and the Department for Education has shown a lack of imagination and foresight in adapting apprenticeships to meet the needs of the NHS. We issued an appeal to tear down the barriers preventing the system from being used to its full potential, so future nurses can have a real choice about their route into the profession.

One way to do this is to create much more flexibility in the use of the apprenticeship levy. It should be used to backfill the cost of additional staff to cover apprentices during training time, and employers should be given much longer to spend the levy. 

There should also be a striking shift in the way we promote nursing apprenticeships. A proper government taskforce needs to drive it forward, and an advertising campaign, financed using funds from the levy, should be created to encourage learners to go down the nursing apprenticeship route.

The government has signalled its support for nursing degree apprenticeships, but the idea that they can drive large-scale recruitment into the profession is currently a mirage. The pandemic has presented many challenges, but there are also opportunities. By removing the existing roadblocks and promoting degree apprenticeships, we can ensure our nurses of the future, who we will rely on to keep us safe and well, are properly supported and truly valued.  

Research Professional News’s campaign, Our Debt Not Theirs, urges the government to forgive the tuition fee debt of nursing and healthcare students. Read more about the campaign online and show your support on Twitter at #OurDebtNotTheirs

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight