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University heads call for radical reforms to funding for nursing

University leaders have called for fundamental reform to the way nursing, midwifery and allied health professional education (AHPs) is funded in England.

The call comes as experts say the NHS in England is facing its worst workforce crisis in a decade and health students are struggling with financial hardship.

Initial education for nurses, midwives and most AHPs is currently funded by NHS grants, which ties universities into health service workforce planning driven by student number controls. Universities play a vital role in training almost all nurses, midwives and AHPs.

But in a joint statement, the Council of Deans of Health and Universities UK argue that this system is not working. It has resulted in shortages in key professions such as nursing and failure to grow numbers in professions such as physiotherapy, which are integral to delivering high quality, cost-effective services. This is despite high numbers of good applicants for most courses: nursing is the fifth most popular course in higher education.

The statement calls on the government to look at whether the current grants-based system can be shifted to student loans. It also urges the NHS to explore its scope to repay part of a students’ loan after a given period of service, attracting newly qualified staff into careers in the health service and helping bring down spending on agency staff.

Professor Steve West, Chair of Universities UK’s Health Education and Research Policy Network and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England, said: “It is time for change.

“The current system of funding is not working. We don’t have enough nurses, midwives and allied health professionals in training to meet the current and future needs of patients. At the same time, students are not receiving enough financial support to meet their day to day costs of living and universities receive less for many of these courses than they actually cost to deliver, and less than the £9,000 fee that universities receive for other subjects.”

Professor Dame Jessica Corner, Chair of the Council of Deans of Health, said: “There are no easy decisions on funding reform but with appropriate safeguards, the outstanding record of nursing, midwifery and AHPs in widening participation to higher education can continue. There are risks to change but if we want the numbers of health professionals that we know future patients will need, the system must be overhauled.”

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