UNISON has not given up in its battle to save the NHS bursary, health delegates in Liverpool heard.
The government intends to remove the bursaries for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals in England this autumn and replace them with tuition fees and loans.
But the proposal has already had a disastrous effect on nursing numbers.
Tomorrow, the House of Lords will discuss the 25% drop in nursing degree applications following the proposals. At the same time, Brexit has already reduced European Union migrant nursing and midwifery registrations by fall by more than 90%.
And UNISON’s health conference in Liverpool warned that cutting bursaries will discourage healthcare assistants from career progression, because of the fear of debt.
And this will “exacerbate the current recruitment crisis in the health and social care sector, putting safety at risk and weakening the diversity of the profession.”
Delegates in Liverpool heard experiences from both sides of the bursary divide.
Ishrt Raouf of the national Black members committee, a student nurse hoping to qualify as a mental health nurse, said she was “in a privileged position” as a direct entrant into a nursing degree, paid a band 2 salary by her employer.
But she was among fellow students for whom “bursaries made nursing accessible”.
Of those, “the majority are female, a good proportion are Black, many have children,” she pointed out. “And almost everyone has jobs outside university to supplement bursary payments.
“But without the bursary, they would not have pursued nursing, because they would not be able to afford it.”
In contrast, Emily Heron of the Newcastle Hospitals branch is a health care assistant who desperately wants to be a nurse – but with the bursary due to be scrapped, she knows that she simply cannot afford to do it.
An emotional Ms Heron was consoled by another member as she recalled that it was while caring for her terminally ill father that she realised she wanted to be a nurse.
She may not be able to live her dream, for now, but as a UNISON member she has played an active role in the union’s campaign against the government’s plans for tuition fees, which she described as “unjust, un-thought-out and unevidenced.”
And she told delegates that her experience “has shown me what trade union activism really is.”
Linda Hobson of the union’s nursing and midwifery committee said that the campaign had been a great example of how to get young people engaged in trade unionism.
She also said it was the union’s work that had brought the issue to the attention of the Lords.
“We are asking the government to just hold back on this,” she told conference. “Ideally, the union would like student nurses to be salaried, or to receive a living bursary. Either way, the government’s option is not the only one.”
James Anthony of the health service group executive added that the introduction of tuition fees “is about student nurses paying for their own training once they have qualified, directly out of their salary.
“It’s completely unacceptable that while insisting on 1% pay restraint the government is coming for the pay packet of future nurses. But the fight is not over.”
As Ms Raouf observed: “I couldn’t afford to pay £9,000 a year for a course, where I spend half of my time working for free. That’s perverse.”
Conference also discussed the nurse shortage that has resulted from the proposed introduction of tuition fees and the government’s refusal to guarantee the status of EU migrants.
Delegates were told that the current crisis was “of the Tories’ own making.”
And the government’s attempt to plug the gap in England with the introduction of a new role of nursing associate, could result in “care on the cheap”.
The conference agreed on the importance for UNISON to oversee the nursing associate pilot scheme and recruit those in the new role into the union.