Universities have also called for assurances that funding for healthcare courses like nursing will be maintained in the light of plans to cap tuition fees at £7,500 a year.
“We would have serious concern about the potential gap in funding for healthcare courses”
Findings were published yesterday from an independent review of post-18 education funding, which was led by author and former non-executive director of the Department for Education, Philip Augar.
Among the review’s recommendations was that the maximum cost of tuition fees should be cut from £9,250 to £7,500 a year.
However, the document – titled Review of Post-18 Education and Funding – also suggested the period for repaying student loans should be extended from 30 to 40 years, meaning people could be paying back loans into their 60s.
The review said a greater proportion of taxpayer funding for higher education should go to disadvantaged and mature students and be used to support “high cost and high value” subjects, such as nursing and medicine.
In addition, it recommended that the Office for Students (OfS) should carry out a review of the funding rates for different subjects, including the cost of provision.
“We recommend that the OfS should have regard to economic and social value and consider support for socially-desirable professions, such as nursing and teaching, which do not command a significant earnings premium,” said the report.
“The next generation of nurses need tailored assistance to encourage them to start courses”
It highlighted Department for Education figures that indicated a 17% increase in the real terms cost of teaching for nursing and allied health professions courses between 2011-12 and 2016-17.
“We expect that this study should rebalance funding towards high-cost and strategically important subjects and to subjects that add social as well as economic value,” said the report.
However, the Council of Deans of Health – which represents universities offering nursing and other healthcare course – said it continued to be concerned about a potential shortfall in funding.
“We welcome the acknowledgement that healthcare courses are high cost subjects and indeed they already rely on public subsidy by the Office for Students for sustainable provision,” said executive director Katerina Kolyva.
“However, we would have serious concern about the potential gap in funding for healthcare courses if subsidies are not maintained,” she warned.
Any reduction in funding for healthcare higher education would pose a risk to the delivery of future workforce commitments in the NHS Long Term Plan, said Ms Kolyva.
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“We will be looking to the government to guarantee existing levels of funding for healthcare pre-registration education, which is necessary to give universities the certainty they require to continue to work with the NHS to grow the workforce,” she said.
The review, which advocates re-branding student loans as “student contributions”, suggests the £7,500 cap on tuition fees should remain in place until 2022-23, with fees increasing in line with inflation from then on.
The amount students pay back over a lifetime should be limited to 1.2 times the original loan amount.
Meanwhile, the review called for the re-introduction for maintenance grants for the least well-off students, in order to reduce the amount of debt they are left with on graduation – with those with the lowest incomes entitled to a grant of £3,000 a year.
Together with the reduction in tuition fees, this would see the maximum debt for disadvantaged students on a three-year degree, like nursing, reduced by £15,000 from around £60,000 to about £45,000, said the report.
The review also called for more support to help disadvantaged students, including mature and part-time students, access higher education in the first place.
Since the removal of the nursing bursary in England, the number of people applying to do nursing degrees has dropped by almost a third.
In particular, the number of mature students applying to nursing courses has plummeted with mental health and learning disability courses – which tend to attract more mature students – particularly hard hit.
The Council of Deans of Health said the proposals outlined in the review were a step forward.
“The council has previously called for the introduction of a maintenance grant for healthcare students and we very much support the report’s recommendations for the provision of maintenance grants for those students most in need,” said Ms Kolyva.
“We also welcome its call for the government to provide support for disadvantaged students, including mature students and part-time students so they can access and succeed in higher education,” she said.
“This is vital for the growth of the future healthcare workforce and is an area where our disciplines have a strong track record,” she added.
The Royal College of Nursing said the review made it clear the government needed to do more to ensure people from a wide variety of backgrounds could get into nursing.
However, the RCN said it could not see how the plans would help boost numbers coming into the profession amid widespread shortages.
“The reduction in fees will only benefit the highest earners and the average nurse could now be paying back their loans for 40 years after graduation,” said RCN director of nursing policy and practice Bronagh Scott.
“While a portion of nursing students might be reassured to see they could qualify for more financial support, it’s hard to see how this would boost the number of people who study nursing,” she said.
Ms Scott said the forthcoming Workforce Implementation Plan – also known as the People Plan – was a “prime opportunity” for the government to set out clear plans to boost the nursing workforce.
According to the RCN, this will require investing at least £1bn into nursing higher education, plus “additional credible investment to support the existing and future nursing workforce”.
“The nursing degree is a course like no other and the next generation of nurses need tailored assistance to encourage them to start courses and enable them to keep studying,” said Ms Scott.
She added: “The upcoming workforce implementation plan for England’s NHS must outline how policymakers intend to show nurses they are valued and how to make nursing an increasingly attractive career route and must fully fund this ambition.”