Spring budget: Hunt urged to forgive nurse student loans

A group of universities and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) have called on the government to fund nurse student loan forgiveness in its upcoming budget.

Next week, chancellor of the exchequer Jeremy Hunt is expected to unveil his spring budget, an annual publication of the UK Government’s spending and tax plans for the upcoming year.

“The critical shortfall of nursing staff poses a significant threat to the NHS’ ability to navigate forthcoming challenges” 

Letter to Jeremy Hunt

Ahead of this announcement, the RCN and universities group MillionPlus have written to Mr Hunt, formerly the UK’s health and social care secretary, asking him to include loan forgiveness for nurses.

The RCN and MillionPlus suggested a scheme whereby all nursing graduates would have 50% of their loan balance forgiven after five years of service in the NHS. This would then be extended to 100% after 10 years in the health service, and those working for fewer than five years would receive no loan forgiveness.

The scheme is costed at £235m per year. However, the open letter said this sum “pales in comparison” to the benefits on the workforce and health of society more broadly.

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Currently, the letter said, there was an “excessive level of risk” for the future of the registered nursing workforce due, in large part, to the cost of nurse training and the need to repay student loans.

“The burden of student debt coupled with real-terms cuts in maintenance grants for nursing students act as significant disincentives for talented individuals to pursue this vital career path,” the letter continued.

“These financial pressures are part of a vicious cycle of understaffing, ultimately jeopardising the quality of care delivered by our NHS.  

“To address this critical challenge, we urge you to seize the opportunity presented by the spring budget and invest in a loan forgiveness model for nursing graduates working in public services.”

Removing this financial barrier would help attract more people to nursing courses amid dwindling application numbers, said the RCN and MillionPlus.

According to UCAS, applications to nursing courses in the UK have declined for a third year running.

A total of 31,100 people applied for 2024-25 entry in the January cycle, compared to 33,570 in 2023, 41,220 in 2022 and 46,040 in 2021.

Applications to English institutions were down 10% from the previous year, falling short of the 29,000 new students per year average needed between 2023 and 2031 to meet the goals of the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan.

 “The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, of which you were proud, is at risk of appearing unviable or irrelevant,” the letter continued.

“The critical shortfall of nursing staff poses a significant threat to the NHS’ ability to navigate forthcoming challenges.

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“While demand for skilled nursing care steadily climbs, the number of domestically educated nurses entering and remaining in the workforce is falling alarmingly short.”

The RCN and MillionPlus said loan forgiveness would help foster a better domestic supply of nurses and ensure the workforce was more resilient in the long term.

The demand for the chancellor from the RCN and MillionPlus mirrors a similar one made by The Times Health Commission earlier this month.

The commission’s report on the NHS recommended that debt for nurses, midwives and doctors should be cut by 30% for those who stay in the health service for three years, 70% for seven years and 100% for 10 years.

This recommendation was fielded to current health and social care secretary Victoria Atkins and her would-be successor, Labour’s Wes Streeting, at an event held after the report was published.

However, neither Mr Streeting nor Ms Atkins committed their parties to such a scheme.

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