• Radical debt cancellation option on the table
  • Cost of living grant also being considered
  • Announcement expected before end of the year

The government is gearing up to announce reforms of financial support for NHS student nurses – likely to include a major reversal in funding policy – to boost applications.

Options being discussed at a high level include a radical cancellation of student debt and a new style bursary in the form of a cost of living grant, which could be between £3,000 and £5,000. It is hoped such measures will increase the domestic pipeline of nurses.

However, sources told HSJ only certain cohorts of students – such as mature students, learning disability nurses, mental health nurses, and those on other courses where student numbers are very low – might benefit from the support due to financial constraints.

Cancellation of debt was described as a tricky option to work out by one source close to the discussions, but they added it could be linked to time served in the NHS.

The new financial support package could be approved before the end of the year, sources told HSJ, before the publication of the People Plan. The final policy still depends on decisions at the top of government, and the timing of any general election, however.

Earlier this year, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens told a King’s Fund summit the debate on reintroducing a nursing bursary was “back in play” because the NHS needs a bigger pipeline of newly-qualified nurses.

Meanwhile, Dido Harding, chair of NHS Improvement, told the Queen’s Nursing Institute conference this week there was a need to address financial support for mature students as there was a “huge shortfall in the number of people” who applied for nursing courses.

When approached by HSJ about the possibility of new financial support options, Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said: “If greater financial support can be implemented for nursing students, this would be a huge step in the right direction – but, of course, it must be backed by proper investment.”

“We have been calling for this for some time, as we urgently need to secure the pipeline of future nurses to ensure we have a sufficient pool of talent to draw from,” he said.  “We know we need to do more to attract people into nurse training.”

Meanwhile, Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Without an immediate investment of at least £1bn a year into nursing higher education through tuition support and support for costs of living for students, the numbers [of nursing students] won’t recover, let alone increase the supply of nurses we need for the future.”

According to the NHS Business Authority, the total spend on bursaries for nursing, midwifery and allied health professionals in 2015-16, which was the last year it was available, was £370m. The spend peaked at £450m in 2010-11.

George Osborne scrapped bursary system in 2015 and switched funding to student loans as part of reforms to lift what he described as an artificial cap on student numbers. It was hoped the reforms would encourage an increase in the number of nursing students.

However, Universities and Colleges Admissions Service data on applicants for 2017 – the first set of data under the reformed system – showed there were 10,000 fewer applicants in England, with the greatest decrease seen in applicants over 20 years-old.

An NHSE spokesman said: “As set out in the interim People Plan, the NHS is working with colleagues in government to identify appropriate further actions on education and training to support the needed further increase in nursing numbers.”