In the past, you have written about how trainee paramedics who have a previous degree are barred from student loans and the NHS bursary, unlike almost all other healthcare students. I am a mature student, looking to retrain as a paramedic. It’s a long-held ambition, and I have spent the last two years completing an A-level in biology to meet the entry requirements. I find myself disqualified from the £5,000-a-year NHS Learning Support Fund because applicants must be in receipt of a student loan to be eligible. I receive a maintenance loan due to low income, but do not qualify for a tuition fee loan because I received one for my first degree nine years ago. I have since repaid it, so I owe nothing.
If I was training to be a nurse, doctor, dentist or another allied health professional, I would be able to get funding. This rationale values patients who can get themselves to hospital for treatment more than those who rely on an ambulance. Because I don’t qualify for the bursary, I’m unable to reclaim travel costs to and from hospital placements. Given the rising costs of travel, and the wide geographical span of placements I could be assigned to, it could end up costing me up to £100 per week. With paramedics in such short supply, the NHS is cutting its nose off to spite its face.
The outrageousness of this funding anomaly ought to make headlines, but few, even new paramedic students, are aware of it because the exemption is not made clear on government websites. In May, I reported the plight of a paramedic student forced to pay back his £1,300 loan after Student Finance belatedly decided he was ineligible.
This is the situation: a mature student who retrains as a nurse, midwife or a physiotherapist qualifies for a loan from Student Finance, and a non-means-tested bursary of at least £5,000 from the NHS Learning Support Fund.
The bursary is because healthcare students are expected to work 12-hour shifts on placement, and have little time to earn money. However, paramedic students who already have a degree don’t qualify for another student loan and are therefore have, until now, been excluded from the bursary.
In a recent change to the regulations, they can now apply for the £5,000 support fund and a £2,000 grant for those with dependants. The ineligibility for SFE loans matters more than ever because, since last year, trainee paramedics must achieve a degree to qualify. So professionals wanting to answer the call for more ambulance crew must have at least £27,750 spare to fund their training, and several thousand more to live on.
The reason appears to be bureaucratic inertia. According to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), paramedic science is ineligible for funding because it was only granted degree status in 2018 and therefore missed out when, in 2017, funding reforms allowed other healthcare courses to qualify.
The absurdity is exposed by a letter from a cohort of five students who faced penury after giving up careers to enrol on a four-year combined nurse paramedic masters degree at Edge Hill University in Lancashire. The qualification, the first of its kind, allows graduates to register as both a nurse and as a paramedic, and furthers the government’s vision of more integrated health care.
Before the five students could begin the degree, their confirmed loans of £37,000 each were revoked because the Department for Education (DfE) claimed the paramedic element disqualified them. It reversed the decision eight months later after the legal firm Lewis Silkin took on their case pro bono. Lawyers pointed out the DfE had misinterpreted its own regulations, which allow mature students to receive funding for nursing qualifications.
The Department for Education says: “As soon as Edge Hill University provided additional details of the content for this course, we acted quickly to ensure students could benefit from the tuition fee and maintenance support.”
Edge Hill’s pro vice-chancellor Lynda Brady tells me: “We’re hugely proud of our students for taking on this fight over an unfathomable and unjust inequality in the funding regime.”
Whenever I ask the DHSC why paramedics have been singled out for funding discrimination, its cut-and-paste response states that it has to consider “maximum value for money for taxpayers” and that it’s keeping the funding arrangements “under review”. It parroted the same this time and confirmed that no review was planned. Its response is a disgrace.
Paramedics are on the front line of the NHS and reportedly leaving “in droves” as callouts double. Some ambulance services are importing crew from Australia to make up the shortfall, yet government policies are an obstacle to signing up.
There is another way; a number of ambulance trusts offer apprenticeships, so students can earn on the job while studying for a degree. The only good news for paramedics is that if they approach burnout, they can retrain as, say, an NHS drama therapist, and receive full funding!
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This article was amended on 26 October 2022 to add details of a new regulation allowing second degree paramedics to apply for the NHS bursary