“Before becoming a student nurse I spent a lot of time working in bars and cafes,” says John Finnegan, who came to Britain from Ireland.
“But I wanted to do something that was more useful and something that gave me a skill too.”
John, Chris Pocock and Phil Weinand are student nurses from Romford in Essex. Training to be a nurse is physically and mentally demanding. A lot of time is spent in hospitals, working on wards.
“We do three months in college, followed by three months in hospitals,” says John. “When we’re on the ward we do a minimum of 37.5 hours a week.”
“And on the wards we do almost the same job as a staff nurse,” adds Chris.
“At the ward meeting, before our shift starts, we are allocated a bay that we are responsible for – just the same as the staff nurses. That can mean looking after 12 patients.
“We make sure patients take their medication. We wash and clean them.
“We do their observations and we monitor their general well-being. We have quite a lot of control over how patients are cared for.”
“My shifts are either 7am till 3pm, or 1pm till 9pm, five days a week,” says Phil.
“And I quite often get asked to come in early or stay late, in order to cover for absence – especially when the hospitals are trying to cutback on using agency or NHS agency staff.
“I have often been told by a ward sister that because of an absence, I’m being relied on to perform the role of a staff nurse.”
“It’s a strange situation, as we’re not really part of the workforce. We are not paid by the hospital trusts, but we are an integral part of the wards on which we work and it would be difficult for them to manage without us.
“And even though we do so much work, we only get a bursary of just over £5,000 a year.”
John points out that overseas students don’t even get the meagre bursary: “Foreign nationals like me don’t qualify for it.
“Therefore all my work in the hospital is for free. I have to work part-time to make ends meet.”
The college-based part of the training is tough. It requires students to produce a lot of coursework and constantly revise their syllabus.
“If you concentrate on it properly it’s not too difficult to pass, but there’s no way that you can just coast through,” says Chris.
Phil found the first half of his course hard because he had to work in a supermarket, often till late at night.
He says, “I was permanently knackered. Most weeks I was working more than 70 hours – at least 37 and a half in the hospital, and about the same in Tesco. But you can’t sustain that for ever.
“I know some people on my course who work until 1am or 2am and still have to get up at six for college – and they are expected to be awake in lectures!”
Chris is luckier. He says, “Because my parents and my girlfriend have decided to support me while I’m training, I haven’t had to do an extra job.
“But if I didn’t have that help, there’s no way I’d survive on £5,000 a year in London.”
Many students emerge from the course with large debts owing to the Student Loan Company, banks and credit cards.
“I’m in quite a lot of debt,” says John. “I’m only two years into my course but I owe the banks about £5,000.
“I worry about the future, but I try not to think about it too much because it makes me disillusioned and loads of students are dropping out at the moment.”
In the past many students could put up with the extra jobs and large debts because when they finished their course, they would be able to get jobs as trained nurses relatively easily. Today, jobs are scarce.
“A friend of mine qualified last year,” says John. “Seven months later and he is one of seven or eight people, out of a class of 70, who have a permanent nursing job. The rest are working in supermarkets or call centres.”
Phil explains that previously hospitals had a system whereby after training, and before getting a permanent job, newly qualified nurses could work for the hospital they trained at, but on a reduced wage.
Work for nothing
“Now they are telling us that they won’t pay the reduced wage,” says John. “We are expected to work for nothing in the hope that it might help us when we are applying for jobs.
“It makes me mad. You qualify, you have a university degree, the government tells you that you are a ‘key worker’, and yet no one wants to employ you.”
“These days, even if you get a job, there is a big risk that your ward will be closed down and that you’ll lose it,” adds Phil.
John, Chris and Phil are still highly motivated and can’t wait to be fully trained and employed. Nevertheless they are pessimistic about the future of the NHS.
“I think the government is going to completely privatise the NHS,” says John. “If you look at the new hospital they have built here in Romford, the Queen Elizabeth, you can see the future.
“Every aspect of that hospital has been privatised – the building and the staff. All the auxiliaries, clericals, cleaners, porters, security and cooks work for private firms. I think that the government wants doctors and nurses to be next.”
The growing anger and frustration among student nurses is testimony to the disaster of New Labour’s commitment to the market in the NHS.
The coming battles over pay in the health service have the potential to tap into this mood and use it as part of the fight to reclaim the values of public services.