NHS bursary under review as student nurses and paramedics left barely able to pay rent

Sharp End Presenter Rob Osborne explores the NHS staffing crisis in Wales

A bursary scheme designed to keep the "brightest and best" NHS staff in Wales is under review following claims students are left with hardly any money to live on after rent and bills.

The Welsh NHS bursary scheme offers support with living costs for student nurses, midwives and allied healthcare professionals - who commit to working in Wales for two years after their course.

But with the cost of living rising, the amount given to students doesn’t cover rent, putting learners off a career in the NHS before they’ve even begun. 

With thousands of vacancies to fill in the NHS, including 3,000 nurses, plus strike action pending, Wales could struggled to attract and keep students in the country, according to a mum of two students.

Jill Oakley found that one son must live on nearly £5,000 a year less than the other.

Jill Oakley, from Wrexham, says her son, Evan, who is studying an Adult Nursing degree, was left thousands of pounds worse off than his brother, studying geography. 

“With the same household, same income, my son studying nursing has almost £5,000 less per year to live on.

“I thought I was missing something, because how can you survive on that? His accommodation comes to over £6,000 - so he's already short and can't afford to pay for his accommodation.”

Those studying allied health courses at university under the bursary scheme do not need to pay back their tuition fees. Credit: Paul Faith/PA

Students on NHS university courses spend 50% of their study time on placement, plus have longer terms compared to other degrees - so have less opportunities to work part-time. Some courses actively discourage students from taking up part-time jobs due to the intensity of their studies.

The NHS bursary scheme is designed to give more funding to students from the poorest backgrounds - but even the maximum grant is £2,000 less than student finance. 

Mrs Oakley said: "(Evan) could have gone to England and had more to live on with £5,000 a year through the English bursary system.

"So why would you choose to study in Wales and stay in work in Wales?

"The funding formula builds in inequality right from the very start."

Even the poorest students on the maximum NHS bursary have less to live on per month, Jill Oakley found.

Jill contacted her local Senedd Members and says she received what she called a “dismissive” response from the office of Carolyn Thomas, who told her that “most nursing students live at home”.

“Perhaps they live at home because they can't actually afford to move out,” Jill said.

Mark Isherwood, Welsh Conservative MS for North Wales, said: “Given Labour have seen an additional 1,000 nursing vacancies added to the NHS in just the last year, it is incredible that we are aiming to attract new entrants into the profession with a bursary scheme that can trap students in low income. “If we value nurses so much, then the least we can do it make the bursary scheme work and eradicate the inequity between it and general funding grants for non-medical students. “Otherwise, why should we expect A&E waits to reduce, nursing vacancies to go down, and unions not to go on strike as they are threatening to do this winter?”

Health Minister Eluned Morgan told ITV's Sharp End programme: "I've asked for a review into the NHS bursary system because I recognise that we need to reform the NHS bursary system to make sure that it is competitive and to make sure that people can and see a future in the NHS.

"We want to encourage more people to join our NHS services."

The NHS bursary option means course fees are paid - whereas the bill needs to be repaid on student finance.  Paramedic science student Caitlin Hayes has also compared funding options with students on other courses. The third-year student at Swansea University said: “It’s brilliant that we have the bursary but the funding is not as much as student finance. My NHS grant is £1,000 plus I can borrow £4,855 - I have £5,855 a year to live off whereas my sister on another course gets £9,000.

"With the increased cost of living at the moment, with rent and bills and fuel prices on the rise, it leaves me with £22 a month to live on."The bursary is absolutely great with the potential to not have to pay back those tuition fees as an incentive to study healthcare in Wales is great, but it also means having less disposable income to live on. It is quite difficult.

“I think the bursary issue comes from miscommunication - something’s been missed. Healthcare students are discouraged from working but I had to work. 

“Students on our course tend to be from a wide range of ages and some have children or are carers for elderly parents etc. They’re in turmoil and panicking over their bursary payments, living month-to-month.

“There’s definitely a risk of people dropping out or students not taking up the course in future."

Paramedic Science student Caitlin Hayes is left with £22 a month after rent and bills. Credit: Sharp End

The Welsh Government said it is currently reviewing the non-repayable NHS Bursary scheme.

It's hoped this would "ensure it offers a comparable package of support to other repayable student finance schemes but also incentivises individuals to work in Wales after graduation", a spokesperson said.

“Students who are struggling are encouraged to seek support through the wellbeing and support services at their university. We are also looking at ways we can provide additional support in the short term."

  • For more on this story, you can catch up on the latest episode of Sharp End here. The show airs on Monday nights, 10.45pm, on ITV Cymru Wales.