Calls to reimburse tuition fees and forgive student debt of certain healthcare students is the focus of an oral question due to be asked in the House of Lords on 23 July 2020: “Lord Clark of Windermere to ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have (1) to reimburse tuition fees, or (2) to forgive any current study-related debt, for any current nursing, midwifery and allied healthcare students who are employed by the National Health Service”.

This In Focus article looks at the call to change student finance arrangements for these students, the Government’s response, and the rules that currently govern student finance for such students.

What calls have been made to change financial arrangements for students?

On 6 May 2020, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), along with the Royal College of Midwives, the National Union of Students and Unison wrote to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, to make three demands relating to healthcare students. They argued that due to the role students had played in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government should:

  • reimburse tuition fees or forgive current debt for all current nursing, midwifery, and allied health care students;
  • abolish student-funded tuition fees for all nursing, midwifery, and allied health care students starting in 2020/21 and beyond, in recognition that they will be supporting vital public services; and
  • introduce universal, living maintenance grants that reflect actual student need.

Commenting on the demands, Dame Donna Kinnair, RCN chief executive and general secretary said:

Before the pandemic, we had witnessed the devastating impact the removal of the bursary had on student nurse numbers, with a 31% reduction in university applications for nursing courses since 2016.

This is a major reason why the nursing workforce in England entered the Covid-19 crisis with almost 40,000 unfilled posts—and with one arm effectively tied behind its back.

Many student nurses have elected to become an invaluable part of the workforce at a time when the country needs them most, but they are still paying tuition fees, and this is simply not right. Now is the time for the government to recognise the ongoing contribution of student nurses by dropping the debt, covering tuition fees and building a workforce fit for the present, and the future.

As Mr Hancock did not respond, in late May the group reiterated their demands in another letter.

What has the Government said?

In July 2020, the Government was asked what plans it had to end nursing student tuition fees and reimburse current debt for all nursing students. In response, it said there were no current plans to change current arrangements:

Nursing students will continue to be required to pay tuition fees, and there are no plans for a specific debt write-off scheme for these students. Student loan borrowers are only required to make repayments from the April after they have finished their course, and once they are earning over the relevant repayment threshold. The amount borrowers are required to repay each week or month is linked to their income, not the interest rate or the amount borrowed. Repayments are calculated as a fixed percentage of earnings above the repayment threshold, and any outstanding debt is written off at the end of the loan term with no detriment to the borrower.

What is the current system of student finance?

Until August 2017, NHS bursaries funded students on nursing, midwifery, and most allied health degrees. The Government abolished these bursaries for all new entrants starting healthcare courses in the 2017–18 academic year. Students were transferred onto the standard student loans system.

The Government announced in December 2019 that from September 2020, in addition to being able to apply for a student loan, new and continuing nursing and midwifery students would receive a non-repayable maintenance grant of £5,000 per year. It also said extra payments of up to £3,000 would be available for eligible students, such as those in specialist disciplines that struggle to recruit.

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Image from Nursing in Practice.