Trainee nurses are increasingly turning to food banks and payday loans as they struggle to afford their training.
A Sunday People investigation can reveal how in the past three years, a whopping £5.2million has been paid in hardship grants.
Around 6,500 nurses have received help - and unions warn that nurses who start training next year face finishing with £52,000 of debt.
That is leading to more nurses arriving at food banks to help feed their families or calling payday lenders to keep on top of bills.
Marina Down, 23, a single mum in London training to become a nurse, says her lowest point came when she was forced to visit a food bank with her daughter.
“That’s how desperate it can get,” she says. “I’m very grateful for it but I’m a single mother trying to feed myself, my child, and give as much as possible to my patients. It’s not easy.”
The alarming situation comes amid a crisis in the health service that is only set to deepen.
Around one in three NHS nurses is set to retire in the next five years as one in 10 posts currently remain empty.
It means the need to train up recruits is even more important.
But Janet Davies, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Thanks to years of short-term thinking, the UK is completely unprepared to deal with the challenges posed by an ageing workforce, increasing demand and now the uncertainty caused by leaving the EU.”
To fight rising levels of poverty, student unions have set up food banks to help nurses faced with a choice between eating or studying to save lives.
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Shelly Asquith, vice president of welfare at the National Union of Students, said some trainee nurses have even been forced into the arms of payday lenders or to apply for benefits.
She said: “These are people who are training to do a job to keep people healthy, because they care about looking after people. And they don’t have the capability to provide for themselves.”
She added: “I think it’s a problem that doesn’t get spoken about enough. A lot of students who are living in poverty feel ashamed about it.
“Being a student is seen as a rite of passage – you go out and have the time of your life – but for a lot of people that’s just not the case.
“They’re really struggling to feed themselves and their families. A couple of student unions, like East Anglia, set up food banks last year because they knew a lot of their members were struggling, and were accessing community food banks.
“This is something that more and more unions are speaking about, because more students are asking them for help. But a lot still don’t, because of the stigma of living in poverty.
Our own research shows that NHS-funded students are twice as likely to need extra financial support.”
It isn’t only nurses that are being affected.
Midwives will also be hit by the planned bursary changes, and have staged a series of mass demonstrations alongside their nursing colleagues.
In February it emerged student grants for dentists and doctors could be slashed – crushing the dreams of those from poorer backgrounds hoping to get into medicine.
It came after the Chancellor announced the changes for nurses in November’s Budget.
Paul Blaylock, of the British Dental Association, warned: “If funding is cut for student dentists, the Government will shut talented young people out of the profession.”
In September 2017, NHS bursaries paid to students will be cut and replaced with loans.
But unions warn this will land them with up to £52,000 worth of tuition fee and maintenance loan debt after a three-year course, putting people off entering the public health system.
The union Unison warns it would cause a “perfect storm” in NHS nursing. Gail Adams, Unison’s lead nurse, said: “You’ll see an even greater reliance on them [trainee nurses] having to receive social support and go to food banks.
“These are not students who are living a luxurious lifestyle – far from it.
Students’ union chief Mrs Asquith said: “The added pressure is creating a mental health crisis at the same time. It’s no wonder that so many students are saying if the bursary is scrapped they won’t apply.”
NUS research published last year revealed four in five students had experienced mental health issues, with around a third admitting to suicidal thoughts. Two years earlier a similar survey found one in five had mental health concerns.
Mrs Asquith says: “I think it’s a deliberate attempt to undermine the NHS. They know students are less likely to enrol if they’re getting into debt and can’t pay their bills. The bursary is a direct link to the NHS. It comes from the NHS, rather than the student loans company, so they feel part of the family.
“Students are being more aggressively targeted by private providers and agencies, and more are going into private healthcare providers. Mass shortages in the NHS are being created, and the Government is using it to say the NHS isn’t working.”
A report from the Institute for Economic Studies for the Migration Advisory Committee said not enough was being done to fill the additional roles left when the one in three nurses currently over 50 soon retire.
Report author Rachel Marangozov said: “The Government needs to act now to ensure that the UK has a domestic supply of nurses. This will require adequate and sustained investment in workforce planning.”