04 May 2017

Mind the Gap

There’s a deficit of trained healthcare professionals in the UK and the planned removal of bursaries for student nurses seems likely to make matters worse. 

When we founded Newcross in 1996, the primary motivation was to improve standards in healthcare. Even then, we saw that it was often difficult for clients to get reliable, smart and skilled people. We believed that learning and development were central to the solution and so we began to build bespoke training programmes.

Nearly 21 years later, we’ve got a nationwide network of talented trainers providing courses in our branches across the UK. In 2016, we delivered 1,347 courses, spanning a wide range of subjects including epilepsy, end of life care, Makaton, autism and the administration of medication.  Indeed, our success in this field is such that we’re now being asked to train healthcare staff employed by other companies.  However, while Newcross’s investment in training continues to increase, with more people, better systems and educational resources, there’s a bigger, underlying problem. There simply aren’t enough qualified nurses to start with. Meanwhile, the demand continues to grow.

Last summer, I flagged our concerns about the likely impact of Department of Health reforms in funding for nursing degrees. Withdrawing bursaries for student nurses would, I explained, probably result in fewer people applying for nursing degree courses.

The Department of Health refuted this and reiterated their official view that applications could actually increase. The evidence we now have suggests that they were wrong. And none of us in the healthcare sector are surprised.

By January 15, 2017 - the key deadline for university applications for courses starting in the Autumn - UCAS reported that 33,810 people in England had applied for nursing-related courses, including midwifery. This was down 9,990 (23%) from 43,800 at the same point last year.

It seems reasonable to expect this drop will translate directly into fewer people starting nursing degrees, which means the skills gap will continue to grow, unless action is taken.  The removal of bursaries is perhaps the most significant single factor, but it is by no means the only one. Additionally, demographic shifts in the UK population, growth in the labour market (and wages) and uncertainty about the outcomes of leaving the EU have created a ‘perfect storm’ for nursing.

Inevitably, the discussion about this challenge is so often clouded by political debate and ideology. But we’ve past the point when rhetoric is useful. We need action.

In the first instance, we need to re-double our efforts to keep nurses nursing by recognising their expertise and rewarding them for their contribution. Fair pay, ongoing support and flexible working have always been sacrosanct at Newcross. Sadly, many employers and agencies fall short in this regard. There’s also a pressing need to actively encourage more applications to nursing degrees, in the same way that HM Armed Forces have re-focused their efforts to attract new recruits. This would surely demand collaboration and investment from the Departments for Education and Health.  

Industry-funded schemes to support undergraduate student nurses should also be explored, emulating initiatives in other sectors such as engineering, where scholarships and bursaries are common.

Finally, it’s impossible to avoid the elephant in the room. Financial support from central government is currently given to attract great people into teaching. Nursing is no less essential. Few would disagree that neglecting this profession will result in long term costs for the UK that far outweigh the price of helping our next generation of nurses to train.