STEVE SWEENEY reports on the fight to save student nurses’ bursaries – a lifeline that underpins our NHS
I BENEFITED from an NHS bursary which allowed me to train as a nurse in the 1990s.
I worked in the NHS for 14 years and have recently taken the decision to re-register and return to practice after a break. Without an NHS bursary I would not be able to do this.
I completed my training 17 years ago and worked in a variety of clinical settings from my first post in intensive care to acute inpatient before my last post working in the community.
I remember how bad things were under the Tories and saw many changes over the years. When NHS trusts came into being I remember we had a cake on the ward. It seemed fitting at the time that it was April 1, although not many NHS workers were fooled.
On the ward that I worked on we had buckets to catch the rain from a leaking roof.
We had a ward full of old equipment. Hoists that had seen better days and were difficult to use, not the electric hoists of today. Rickety commodes and beds that often didn’t elevate. The list went on.
When Labour won the 1997 general election there was widespread joy among NHS staff. At the time I lived in a shared house with other nursing students.
After the pub we gathered round the TV and stayed up drinking beer, cheering as one by one the Tories fell. And yes, we were up for Portillo.
We were glad to see the back of the Tories. Not that we had any illusions in New Labour, but after 18 years of underfunding and a creaking NHS we knew things would improve.
And on the surface they did. Although we knew it was built on sand.
New Labour accelerated PFI, expanded privatisation and went against the conference decision to introduce foundation hospitals. As Unison general secretary Dave Prentis once said, they built the bridge that the Tories are marching across.
One thing they didn’t do was axe the NHS bursary. This was a lifeline to many of us who would not have been able to study and train as a result.
As diploma students we were not entitled to student grants and we were not eligible to live in halls of residence so we were at the mercy of the housing market.
The rent we paid took most of our bursary.
We worked full-time hours and on top of that most of us had part-time jobs. I worked in a pub most evenings and agency shifts if I had the time. But we also had to study and write essays. This meant that we were often up through the night to hit deadlines. But we did it.
The fight being led by student nurses is crucial. This is not just about the NHS bursary but about the future of the NHS.
To cut the bursary and deny access to training at a time when nine out of 10 hospitals report a shortage of nurses will only exacerbate an already dire situation.
A Royal College of Nursing (RCN) report found that there were 10,000 unfilled nursing posts in London alone, a figure the Department of Health said that it “did not recognise.”
A recent report commissioned by Unison and the National Union of Students (NUS) found that there would be a drop of 2,000 nurses qualifying each year and the likelihood that university courses would close as student numbers drop and income falls with those wishing to train facing an average debt of around £50,000.
An apprenticeship for nurses would, according to Bursary or Bust campaigners, see them effectively being paid £3 an hour, a figure they see as insulting.
Student nurse Danielle Tiplady is one of the leaders of the bursary campaign.
She has spoken on many platforms over the course of this year since organising a demonstration in January 2016 that attracted 7,000 people, including shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander. She will be taking her message to the RCN and other union conferences over the summer as she steps up the campaign.
Tiplady has been a driving force in linking the struggles in the NHS together and has been a vocal and active supporter of the junior doctors in their fight against government plans to implement a contract the British Medical Association describes as “unsafe and unfair.”
Her energy has inspired many and she has helped build a unity among health workers that has sometimes proved difficult in the past.
The bursary campaign has perhaps understandably been overshadowed by the junior doctors’ dispute as their industrial action has hit the headlines and forced Health Secretary Jeremy hunt onto the back foot. But the campaign has been creative and vocal with lobbies, marches, meetings and piling pressure on MPs and the government to reverse their decision.
Danielle has nothing but praise for NUS officers Shelly Asquith and Shakira Martin without whom the Bursary or Bust campaign may have dropped off the NUS radar altogether and welcomes the election of Malia Bouattia whose leadership Tiplady sees as a boost for the campaign.
The Bursary or Bust campaign is also fighting for free education for all and in that finds natural allies in the NUS. Tiplady is highly critical of the government attacks on the NHS which she sees as being ideologically driven and part of the government austerity agenda.
Ahead of the Bursary or Bust demonstration today she said: “This government must listen to the evidence that emphasises how these changes to our education risk the future workforce of the NHS. The bottom line is it is sadly the patients who will suffer.
“These cuts are part of a wider ideological attack on our NHS and austerity measures in society, the government needs to halt the bursary changes and base care over profit, before it is too late.”
The attacks on the Bursary are part of an all out assault by the Tory government as it plans to dismantle and destroy the NHS.
With £22 billion of cuts planned over the next five years and another reorganisation by stealth through the so-called sustainability and transformation plans it is clear that the NHS is not safe in Tory hands.
The situation is now more critical than ever and the future of the NHS is at stake. Nye Bevan famously said that the NHS would survive as long as there are folk with the faith to fight for it. Now is the time to be those folk.
The Bursary or Bust demonstration takes place in London today, meeting at 1pm at St Thomas’s Hospital and will march to the Department of Health. I am proud to be one of the speakers at the rally which is supported by the People’s Assembly, GMB, Unite, Unison and other organisations including Momentum and Disabled People Against Cuts.