Dr Paula Crick – Dean, College of Health and Social Care
The world of health and social care is a dynamic, ever-changing environment influenced heavily by social and political changes that impact on the way care is commissioned, provided and prioritised. This is an area that affects us all – our families and our communities.
It is therefore not surprising that health and care issues are raised in the nation’s news almost daily – from the recent announcement of a ‘sugar tax’ to reduce childhood obesity (and its associated health risks) to a £1.1 billion cut in the NHS repairs budget. For better or worse, these changes affect both the quality of care and the way in which care services prioritise resources.
Over past months we’ve also seen changes that impact heavily on our own staff and students and on the professions they are a part of. The Comprehensive Spending Review announcement in November confirmed that from September 2017 nurses and allied health professional students (like occupational therapists and diagnostic radiographers) will no longer have their tuition fees or support costs paid by a bursary. Instead, they would be expected (like other students) to take a student loan.
The changes were made to tackle a national shortage in qualified health and social care professionals by freeing up colleges and universities to offer more training places for nurses and allied health workers.
But these changes present particular challenges for the type of students most often attracted to the health and social care professions. These students tend to be older than the traditional student and can be more ‘debt averse’ than their younger counterparts. Many are the first in their family to go to University – so the decision to invest in higher education is significant. It should also be acknowledged that the ability of these students to engage in paid employment while training is limited; nursing and allied health professional programmes are full time – at least five days a week – with shifts in practice placements that can be from early morning to late at night, including weekends.
But maintaining wide participation in higher education is essential to enabling the professions to attract the diversity of workers needed to reflect the communities they serve. This focus should not be lost as student loans take over from bursaries.
Universities, the NHS and the Government are now engaged in national talks to ensure that a wide range of people continue to enter the health and care professions. This includes being clear about how student loans work and dispelling some of the myths around student loans, such as whether or not they’re affordable: at the moment, a newly qualified nurse in the NHS with a salary of around £22,000 would repay £63 per year, or £5.25 per month, with any unpaid loan written off after 30 years.
It also includes promoting the advantages of becoming a health care professional. With an ageing population and increasing demand on the NHS, the need for highly able and committed health professionals is only likely to grow. Most nursing and allied health professional courses have excellent graduate employability, with newly qualified practitioners in high demand.
Student funding may be changing – and the challenges facing health and social care services may be ever evolving – but the rewards of becoming a health professional, and making a real difference to the lives of others, are staying the same.