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Bursary for Scottish student nurses and midwives to be reviewed

November 6, 2014

The Scottish Government’s Health Secretary, Alex Neil MSP,  announced today a review of the separate funding arrangement for student nurses and midwives.

The news release states the review’s aim is “ensuring that the process continues to be fair and reflects the needs of today’s students”.

Alex Neil is quoted as saying: “Scotland’s support package for nursing and midwifery students remains distinctive – the core bursary is not means tested or repayable – in stark contrast to the position in England.   Though we believe we offer a good package for students, it is extremely important that nursing and midwifery continues to be an attractive area of study for our Scottish students. We understand that much of this depends on the support we have in place for those studying.  Our intention this year is to review the funding package available to nursing and midwifery students, to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of Scottish nursing and midwifery students.”

The announcement comes ahead of the publication of any detailed proposals and follows a story run yesterday in The Nursing Times. The rhetoric is pretty vague, but the language makes more sense when the detail of the current scheme is compared with the mainstream student support arrangements and set against the nature of complaints about the current scheme.

The nursing and midwifery scheme is very different from those for other students, involving no loan and no means-testing: it operates more like a proxy pay scheme. Equally,  however, the maximum value of what is on offer is now a little below the £7,500 combined sum of loan and grant available to the poorest students at university. The Nursing Times reports that a Scottish student has set up a petition seeking a significant increase in the value of the bursary and  that Unison is campaigning across the UK (similar schemes operate in all parts) for an increase to £11,475 per year for students outside of London, with the Unison Scotland regional organiser Matt McLaughlin calling  the current bursary of £6,578 per year for students in Scotland  “grossly unfair” and explaining that the union has a longstanding campaign policy that “student nurses should be paid what we call a living bursary”.

The total cost of the current arrangements in 2012-13, the latest year for which figures are available, was £68m, for 8,755 students: see Table 5.1 and Figure 5.1 in the most recent statistics Student support statistics Scotland 2013-14.  That is now more than the combined value of the Young Students and Independent Students Bursaries, collectively now worth only £53m and covering some 50,560 students.

According the the news release, currently the Nursing and Midwifery Student Bursary (NMSB) in Scotland provides all eligible students with a non-income assessed and non-repayable personal allowance of £6,578 per year (excluding additional allowances).   According to the SAAS figures, the average award in 2012-13 before additional allowances was higher, at £6,990,   and including allowances £7,860. This means that students on NMSB scheme are receiving around seven times as much support in cash than most other students.  Indeed, given that many of this group are mature students, the real difference is more likely to 9 to 10 times as much, compared to the Independent Student Bursary of £750.  Equally, however, they have no access to loan to top up their grant.

The Scottish Government of course has access to far more student loan than it can use, as a result of  the Barnett consequentials of the English tuition fee arrangements, but is very short of cash.

Concerns about damaging the supply of nurses and midwives will  be a real issue here and the professional bodies concerned may be less easily persuaded than was the NUS about the benefits of a major shift to loans.  So it is hard to believe that placing this group onto the same support as other students have  is a likely outcome.

However, some travel in that direction, sweetened by a loan-enabled decent increase in the total value of upfront support, must surely be at least one possibility, if the Scottish Government wants to use this to make any savings in the cash budget while also addressing anxiety about the total amount students are given to live on.  Certainly the wording of the ministerial statement is open-ended enough not to rule that out.  Although the press released includes a barbed reference to England, that model is surely being quoted as a reminder of how exceptional the Scottish scheme now is on any comparator.  Details of the English scheme are here.  It involves full payment of fees and a  means-tested grant and a loan.  For those on 30 week courses its total value is lower than  mainstream English student support or the Scottish NMSB; for those on 45 week courses it appears to have a higher total value, though of course it is in part repayable.

A review of the analogous scheme in Northern Ireland in 2012 led to a slight reduction in the main grant and some cuts also to associated grants, but not a major redesign.  The Welsh scheme has moved to means-testing and also involves loans, and like England can provide more upfront support than Scotland (although at first sight, still a lower total value package than Welsh mainstream students can get).

The chance of any cash savings which might be made here being recycled into the SAAS budget to restore the large cuts made to mainstream student grants last year are low.  Although administered by SAAS, this scheme sits in the budget of the Health Directorate. Indeed, it may be that any cuts to grants will be made more palatable by promises to re-invest  savings  elsewhere in activities of interest to the relevant professional groups.

However this unfolds, it’s an interesting development, given the way in which student grants have been falling out of favour in Scotland over a number of years.  The question is whether this arrangement will continue to be perceived and treated as, in effect,  analogous to pay or will become more closely assimilated into student support.




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