Nursing Students in revolt over Tory Minister’s statement

Photo: Gary Knight

Tens of thousands of newly graduated nursing students in England have expressed dismay over a statement by Helen Whately, the Tory minister for Care, writing in what is still the middle of a pandemic, that they are “not providing a service” writes Mike Picken

They are also angry at the termination by Matt Hancock, Tory Health Minister, of temporary NHS contracts promised for six months but now ending after only three months. 

The graduating students have been caught in the middle of a Tory U-turn over nursing bursaries that has cost them each individually tens of thousands of pounds. 

The background to is that in 2015, flush with their surprise success at the UK General Election, the government of public school/Oxbridge-educated toffs David Cameron and George Osborne decided it would be a jolly wheeze to save some money for tax cuts for the rich in their “Spending Review” by abolishing the longstanding bursaries for nursing students in England.  Nursing student bursaries were to be axed and students forced to take out full maintenance loans to live on while training from 2017 onwards. Osborne even claimed that the move would enable the recruitment of 10,000 more nursing students per year, to help fill the massive shortfalls in the NHS workforce that had resulted in NHS England undertaking major recruitment of trained staff from abroad. 


However, the entirely predictable result of this was a massive fall in the number of applicants for nurse training for 2017, particularly from older groups that have traditionally been a major part of nursing student intakes (in 2008, over 21 year olds made up a majority of the intake to nurse training – the opposite of most subjects). Far from the 10,000 extra places promised by the Tories, entry to nurse training from England declined in 2017 by 2%, with 700 less students. However, in Scotland, Wales and the six counties of Northern Ireland, the devolved administrations responsible for education and NHS retained the bursaries – and saw their intakes rise by between 6% and 8%. 

Protests and demonstrations in London during the period, organised by the People’s Assembly and others and supported by incoming Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, saw the issue of challenging the Tory axing of nursing student bursaries come centre stage.

The students entering nursing degrees in 2017 were thus the first to go through their courses entirely funded by loans from the Student Loan Company – for both annual fees of £9,250 and for their costs. This has led to graduation debts in the summer of 2020 for tens of thousands of nurses entering the profession of around £60,000 each. While many other graduating students face similar debts, the reason for the existence of nursing bursaries is highly specific to the nature of the training undertaken.

When Theresa May’s decision to call a snap general election in 2017 so spectacularly backfired and the Tories lost their Westminster majority, there was speculation that the abolition of bursaries might be reversed. However the May government managed to hang on to power thanks, in the main, to the support of ten MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party and 13 newly elected Scottish Tory MPs. Thanks to the devolved administrations, none of them had constituents or local NHS services actually affected by the abolition of the bursary in England!

Fall in numbers

The downturn in numbers of nursing students entering the NHS in a period of shortages and the expected reduction in EU nurses recruited as a result of a calamitous Brexit policy, not to mention the continuation of the ‘hostile regime’ for those from outside the EU coming to work in the NHS, eventually led to a government u-turn in late 2019 when it was announced that a bursary would be restored for those entering in 2020.  The main reason for the bursary being used for nursing courses is that it is a curriculum requirement for 50% of the course to be undertaken in clinical NHS settings, amounting to over 2,000 hours of unpaid working in hospitals and clinics.

Unlike students at Oxbridge, who only have to spend 24 weeks in university study, nursing students have to be available during their course all year round and work night shifts and other anti-social hours, travel to hospitals and clinics and so on. Of course, very few Tory MPs and ministers have any conception of this type of training – like the departed, but unmissed ,Osborne and Cameron, and Boris Johnson himself, recently appointed “Minister for Care” Helen Whately is also drawn from the home counties public school/Oxbridge educated privileged layers. You have to be concerned about the calibre of such people having any responsibility for public policy, when even Tory-supporting TV presenter Piers Morgan describes such ministers as “utterly inept”.


So, when an angry final year nursing student working in recent months in emergency hospital care in Peterborough wrote to her MP to protest about the government not backdating the bursary for her and tens of thousands of others, it was the ultimate insult for Tory minister, Helen Whately to claim that nursing students were “not providing a service”. Hundreds of experienced nurses and healthcare workers took to social media to point out that nursing students had always been a vital part of healthcare teams delivering support for patients. The Daily Mirror carried it on their front page and it was extensively covered on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, currently getting a record near one third of the morning TV audience for their excoriating coverage of Tory incompetence.

To add insult to injury, in March the UK government called on those graduating nursing students in caught in the loss of bursary gap, to join the English NHS early and promised them six-month contracts.  Over 25,000 students responded and have worked throughout the health emergency only for them to be told in recent days by health minister Matt Hancock that their services are no longer required and their contracts will be terminated three months early.

On the same day Whately’s letter hit the headlines, the Higher Education Statistics Agency also announced the results of a new survey of graduate employment. While full statistics are not yet published [and the data so far must be treated cautiously], it was particularly noteworthy that the median salary for those graduating from healthcare subjects in graduate level jobs 15 months after graduating was only £24,000, below the average of £25,000 for all subjects, below the threshold for the repayment of student loans, and below the government’s definition of a ‘high skilled’ job in their new racist immigration policy. 

The 2017-20 Nursing student cohort face the prospect of not just graduating with a £60,000 debt, but that debt increasing as the Tories apply the current 6% pa compound interest rate to the outstanding student loans. Some predictions actually show this debt increasing to £80,000 or even £100,000 per graduate across 30 years, if those graduates working for the NHS do not earn enough in the coming recession and austerity planned by Johnson to make sufficient repayments. The current student loan system with over £120 billion of debt outstanding and outrageous compound interest rates is a millstone round the neck of millions of graduates, and will particularly affect the viability of healthcare and NHS workers. After coming onto the doorstep every Thursday to “Clap for the NHS”, the Tory response is to kick in the teeth those nurses and other healthcare workers who have put their lives on the line during the pandemic.

The callous disregard by the Tories for the NHS, healthcare workers and nursing students needs to be challenged aggressively by Labour and the trade unions. The current bipartisan support for the government by Labour leader Keir Starmer needs to change completely, and Labour needs to go on a war footing against the Tories. Labour must immediately promise if they come to power to wipe out the debt incurred by nursing students during the 2017-2020 period and to champion the ending of student loans, as was the policy under Corbyn’s leadership. Labour (and the SNP) must promise a proper living bursary for all in NHS training, and decent salaries when they graduate and join the NHS.  And the only way to achieve this is by a radical shift in taxation towards the wealthy individuals and corporations bleeding us all.

25 June 2020

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