'I Want To Be A Midwife, Please Don't Cut The Bursary'
The Debrief: Ella wants to be a midwife but now, because of the government's decision to scrap bursaries for trainee midwives and student nurses in England and replace them with loans, she can't.
It’s a familiar film or TV trope, the busy young heroine, hurriedly brushing a loose hair off her face while she serves another glass of champagne to a group of businessmen, who ask her to smile for them, call her princess, say something sleazy and demand a kiss on the cheek when they leave…
It’s a montage scene, she’s still smiling at the end of the night as she pulls off her apron and goes home. Cut to her slumped while drunk people kiss public transport around her, cut to her falling on to her bed and passing out in her work clothes, cut to her waking up to an alarm at 6am, putting on a midwives uniform, rushing out the door, onto a packed train and then into an 8 or 12 hour shift in the community: weighing babies, measuring bumps, recording everything, studying in the car as she and her mentor go from house to house or to a clinic or back to the hospital for appointments or classes, not stopping to have lunch. But she’s still smiling because this part is her dream coming true. Cut to the girl changing back into her waitressing clothes in a corner of a train station, to her serving the next group of businessmen. Cut to her collapsing in bed, waking up at 6am and doing it all again.
This isn’t going to work is it? This is real life, not a film, and real people need sleep. Student nurses and midwives need to sleep, because they’re doing important jobs, they can’t risk missing something. They’re not just learning, they’re working, they’re doing all the things they will need to do once they’re qualified and they need to do them well. They work in hospitals and communities 40hours (or more) a week for 25 weeks of the year to learn their trade.
And, they don’t get paid a penny.
Until November 2015 some of us qualified for a bursary of £5000 a year (£6000 in London) which is about enough to cover rent. Maybe also travel. The fees to study were also paid by the NHS, which was a real encouragement to people who have a passion for the profession, which isn’t hugely well paid, and don’t want to end up with a massive debt by the time they’re qualified. Not anymore, the government have scrapped it.
I started my midwifery training last September, it had been my dream to become a midwife for three years. Before you get all ‘er love shouldn’t you have done it as your first degree if it’s your dream?!’ on me…when I was 18 I didn’t know I wanted to be a midwife. It was because of my first degree that I found that out. I studied anthropology and I learned about pregnancy around the world, health care, the history of the NHS and the importance of helping vulnerable people. Also, at 18 I had no life experience and, anyway, do pregnant women want an army of 18 year olds delivering their babies? Helping them when things get tough? Appearing in emergencies? I’m going to go with no.
When I started the course I was told to expect to get the full, £6,000, bursary on account of my having been financially independent from my parents for at least three years. Without it I wouldn’t have been able to contemplate doing the degree at all. But, there was a catch, after sending the bursary company a history of P45s and letters from employers which covered 6 years, they decided not to give it to me. I worked throughout the entirety of my first degree, but apparently no work undertaken during another degree counts.
OK fine that still leaves me with the 3 years since I finished my first degree, right? Which is the minimum needed to qualify for the bursary. Wrong. Those 3 months I worked full time as a waitress cash in hand, doesn’t count, the 5 months in Paris working as an Au Pair, doesn’t count, the two months unemployed don’t count, even though I was living off the tiny amount of savings (read: overdraft) I had. In the end they told me I needed at least a year’s more work to qualify. And, by this time I’d already started the course.
My other option was to have a husband/wife who earns less than 20k, or my parents could pay for it. Brilliant. Those weren’t options for me, my parents can’t magic up thousands of pounds to get me through a second degree. And, no one wants to marry me. Anyway, I’m only 25.
I couldn’t apply for other funds and the university said they couldn’t give me anything because apparently I was the NHS’s responsibility. Some people suggested a loan, but as I’m already in quite a considerable amount of debt from my first degree I didn’t want to graduate, age 28 with another 30k (plus interest) hanging over my head.
So my tutor suggested I may be able to leave and come back next year, so I could work some more to fill in the apparent gap in my bursary application….so off I went…
AND NOW THE BLOODY TORY GOVERNMENT HAVE GONE AND TAKEN AWAY ALL FUNDING FOR TUITION FEES AND BURSARIES. WELL DONE, CLASSIC GIDEON, GOOD WORK GUYS.
This means I can’t go back. Apparently if you can’t fund it you can’t do it and that’s just the way it is: ‘work for free student nurses and midwives, break your back day after day to pay for you dream job, then, get into more debt’. And all this, from a government who received their university education for free, no matter how wealthy their parents were. Sorry do I sound angry? I hope so. I am.
The Conservative Government’s new plans to scrap the bursary, grants and tuition fees means any future nursing and midwifery students who now undertake the training will come out with up to £65k in debt. That’s triple what a newly qualified nurse or midwife can expect to be earning in their first year. Triple! This also means up to £100k debt for anyone who has started the course after already completing a separate degree. Basically putting a stop to the possibility of many older students deciding to retrain as a nurse or midwife, let alone showing no respect for the kind of work students do on these courses.
I wanted to become a midwife not only for the profession itself, my own wonder at the female body, at its ability to create life itself, but because I have a huge love for our NHS. I think it is one of the few things in British history we can actually be proud of: the fact that in the UK your medical care is not determined by whether or not you can afford it, that we have this service that does not discriminate and that is purely there for the service of others, no matter their circumstances. But working alongside veteran midwives who will tell you in no simple terms that the NHS is disappearing under government cuts and in a few more years will no longer be standing left me cold. These cuts to student bursaries are just another attack on the NHS itself.
Emma C, a student nurse at Kings College London, and a member of the Bursary or Bust campaign who are planning action to protest these cuts told me, 'There is absolutely no way I could have done this without my bursary. My bursary only just covers rent and so to live I had to take out an interest heavy 'career development' loan. The prospect of £50k+ debt after both degrees just would not be an option for me. Education is a right not a privilege, especially when that education will benefit society as a whole as nursing and midwifery courses will do!’
She added, ‘the nature of these courses means that 50% are based on clinical placements where students are effectively working unpaid whilst training. If fees were introduced and bursaries cut, this means that future students will be paying TO work. As it is, I earn £3 an hour with my bursary and I genuinely thought our next fight would be increasing this to an actual living wage for students to survive on. But instead, in 2016, myself and others are battling to ensure that we have future colleagues training in these professions and furthermore that everyone who wants to train, can.’
Would you be happy to know that the student nurse who changed your dressings, or the student midwife who helped deliver your baby is getting NOTHING to be there, often on a 12 hour shift, sometimes overnight. And then if she’s really desperate having to fill the other 12 hours of her day with another job just so she could be there? Or, would you rather she got some help, some funding, some money just so she can get some sleep. No one goes into medical professions lightly. Student midwives know it’s not all ‘push push’ = smiley happy mums and cute babies. It’s fucking gritty; entire families living in one room in a shabby house, a couple blatantly smoking cannabis when you walk in to see their newborn, counselling a woman who had a stillbirth and is worried about her new pregnancy, a heavy smoking mother of 6 who’s your age and ‘doesn’t want smoking advice, but cheers anyway’. You see it all and still you want to do it. Because this is real life, this is what it’s actually about, no judgement - just helping people, giving them the best care you can give them.
Unfortunately sometimes without any money, you just can’t carry on doing it. And with the prospect of £65k debt I bet very few people will want to do it at all. The Royal College of Nursing has also said that they are worried that a fear of debt will put people off.
Would you work half the year for nothing? Or really with the new plans, would you pay to work? Even an apprentice wage would be something. But nothing at all? Really?
This is not a cushty arts degree (which I did before) where you are in a few days a week and you can work around it, read books, go to the pub and generally have a nice university experience. It’s damn hard work and its full time, you can’t work around it, I tried, I had to work so many hours to pay for rent and food that I couldn’t find the time to do any of my homework.
Student nurses and midwives desperately need this financial support so they can put everything into their degree, so they can give people proper care. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do that from the day I put my head down on the desk when my mentor and I had a break because of a cancelled appointment and just fell asleep. When I looked at the list of work and reading I had to do for the course but instead had to spend my only day off working at a shop, or looking for more jobs and ways to make money. And I can promise you selling your dirty knickers is no longer a profitable career, the market has been saturated (ew). I know, I did the research.
I cried for three weeks before coming to the conclusion that I wouldn’t have enough money over the next three years to do this degree and fund it myself. I’m crying now writing this because it’s so crushing. But I’m not writing this to be a big sob story. No, this is about the people who will no longer be able to do the degree, people for whom the debt is just too much to take on. This is about all those people who have a real passion for nursing or midwifery, who want to do a degree but just can’t afford it now? Who is going to be able to put themselves through the course? Who is going to want this much debt? The NHS is going to lose the possibility of having thousands of potentially amazing, caring, and brave workers because of this.
The fight is not over, student nurses and midwives are staging a walk out and taking to the streets along with the junior doctors on the 10th February to protest these cuts. Support the Bursary or Bust campaign by showing your support online, taking to the streets with them, or donating to the crowdfunder page.
These are your future nurses and midwives, this is your NHS.
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