Nursing degree apprenticeships as a successful and sustainable route into the profession will forever be a mirage unless barriers to delivery are torn down, MPs say today (6 Dec).

A report by the Education Committee warns that the uptake of nursing degree apprenticeships has been far too slow with no more than 30 starters beginning training through the scheme last year.

Phil Kenmore, Head of Health and Social Care Business Development at The Open University, said: 

“The nursing profession is facing a difficult time, with a shortfall in nurses leading to considerable spending on temporary staff, so it is important that the barriers to nursing apprenticeships are urgently addressed in order to meet demand and ensure a consistently high level of patient care. 

"The NHS is under increasing pressure to spend its levy and nursing apprenticeship numbers are picking up as they do so, but the issues laid out in this report are a drag on numbers rising further. It's crucial that the apprenticeship levy becomes more flexible to allow stretched trusts to use the funding effectively. Until then, a vital route into the profession is being denied to many who would choose it, rather than being open to all."

The Committee argues there is no evidence of how the Department for Education intends to meet the target of 400 nursing associates progressing to degree apprenticeships from 2019.

Maze of bureaucracy

The report finds universities and employers are currently trying to navigate a ‘maze of bureaucracy’ when trying to deliver degree apprenticeships. The Committee calls for much greater flexibility in the system and the use of the apprenticeships levy.

Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Committee, said:

“The idea that degree apprenticeships are a realistic route into the profession is currently a mirage. Ambitious targets are simply not going to be met. There has been a distinct absence of a strategic grasp of the need for nursing degree apprenticeships.

"The Department for Education must act now to tear down the barriers that are preventing the system being used to its full potential and ensure every future nurse has a real choice about their route into the profession.

The DfE has shown a lack of imagination and foresight and not enough attention has been given to adapting apprenticeships to meet the needs of the NHS. A greater requirement for off-the-job training and the safety requirement of apprentices not replacing qualified nurses means there are huge difficulties in the delivery of degree apprenticeships.

Ministers must now recognise the uniqueness of the health service’s position and allow flexibility in the use of the apprenticeship levy so these apprenticeships can be made to work for both the employer and students.

While on their own they will not solve the nursing workforce crisis, no-one should be prevented from undertaking a nursing degree apprenticeship due to lack of availability. Nursing degree apprenticeships offer an alternative to those put off by the cost of pursuing the full university degree route.

By removing the road blocks, we can ensure that the NHS can play its part in tackling our economy’s skills shortages, give every student a choice about how they progress and ensure nursing degree apprenticeships are a reality rather than a mirage.”

The report highlights how the number of applications for nursing degrees has fallen by a third since the bursary-based system for undergraduate nursing was replaced by a loan system in 2017. The Committee is particularly concerned by a fall in the number of applications from mature students.

Greater flexibility

The Committee recognises that students must be in addition to regular staff to ensure safe care for patients and calls for NHS employers to be allowed to use their apprenticeship levy to cover the backfill costs of this ‘supernumerary status’.

In addition to more flexibility over the use of the levy, the Committee is calling on the Nursing and Midwifery Council to apply any safe and effective flexibility to supernumerary status.

The report also reiterates the Committee’s previous recommendation of doubling the time employers have to spend their levy to 48 months and prioritising continuing professional development for nurses.

The funding band for nursing degree apprenticeships must also remain at a minimum of £27,000 and the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) should consider increasing it. Any future reduction of the funding band must be assessed to ensure providers can continue to deliver apprenticeships.

Chair Robert Halfon MP will lead a Westminster Hall debate on the report on Thursday at 1.30pm. The debate will be broadcast live here.

Committee Membership: Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP (Con, Harlow), Lucy Allan MP (Con, Telford), Ben Bradley MP (Con, Mansfield), Marion Fellows MP (SNP, Motherwell and Wishaw), James Frith MP (Lab, Bury North), Emma Hardy MP (Lab, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle), Trudy Harrison MP (Con, Copeland), Ian Mearns MP (Lab, Gateshead), Lucy Powell MP (Lab Co-op, Manchester Central), Thelma Walker MP (Lab, Colne Valley), William Wragg MP (Con, Hazel Grove)

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