Nurses and midwives have warned of a massive recruitment crisis if the government goes ahead with cuts to student bursaries, as their latest demonstration took place in London on Saturday.
In November, the government announced plans to replace the bursaries student nurses and midwives currently receive with loans from 2017, with the intention of creating up to 10,000 new training places.
The Department of Health said the changes would put "nursing students into line with the arrangements for students undertaking other university degrees".
But many fear the prospect of accruing debt – estimated to be around up to £50,000 – while studying will deter many potential nurses and midwives from entering the profession.
"The future workforce of the NHS is hanging in the balance," Danielle Tiplady, a third-year student nurse at King's College London, who organised the protest, told BuzzFeed News.
She called upon health secretary Jeremy Hunt to listen to the strong voice of opposition from the medical community, "not for the sake of the students, but for the patients who will be the ones to suffer when they have no healthcare professionals to look after them when they need it the most".
Addressing a crowd of protesters gathered at the Department of Health, the president of the Royal College of Nurses (RCN), Cecilia Anim, said: "The changes will stop future nurses from joining our profession."
A survey by the RCN published ahead of the protest on Saturday showed two-thirds of members polled would not have gone into nursing if they had needed to take out a loan to study.
Of the 17,000 RCN members surveyed, 89% said they opposed the planned bursary-to-loan switch, while 79% believed the changes would have a negative impact on patient care.
While the government has said that the money saved from stopping bursaries would allow it to fund more training places and eventually increase the number of nursing staff, many believe the opposite would occur, not just because of the debt deterrent, but because of a lack of clear planning for managing an increased number of students entering hospitals.
Around 50% of the three-year nursing and midwifery degrees consist of work-based training placements overseen by qualified nurses.
No extra funding has been specifically allocated to increase the number of qualified nurses to support student training places, and 81% of members polled by the RCN do not believe that the current number of nurses would have the capacity to mentor more students.
“The message from nurses is loud and clear: These proposals would reduce the supply of nursing staff and damage patient care," RCN chief executive Janet Davies said.
She said the government's plans were a "huge gamble with the future of the nursing workforce", and felt it had not properly evaluated the risks involved.
"Every extra training place needs a number of high-quality clinical placements to give the student practical experience," Davies said.
"The government has not explained how these extra placements will be funded, and nurses are clearly saying that without extra funding the quality of mentoring will suffer."
Davies called upon the Department of Health to "work with the RCN and others to identify a fair, effective and sustainable funding system for nursing education".
When nurses' bursaries were debated in parliament in May, health minister Ben Gummer defended the changes. "I am determined to expand nurse training places but we can only do that if it is affordable," he said.
Sophia Koumi, a mental health nurse and vice president for health education at King's College London students' union said continuous protest was important to "keep the issue on the map" and vowed more demonstrations would take place until nurses' voices were heard.
"The fight isn't just about the bursaries, it's about the NHS as a whole and the wider issues that the NHS and the staff are faced with," Koumi told BuzzFeed News.
"It affects us all, because we are all patients of the NHS."
Laura Silver is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Laura Silver at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.