Is extra funding for training and placements good news for the physiotherapy profession?

Ieuan Ellis unpicks the true meaning of an announcement on extra student placements

by ellis09

On 9 August, the Department of Health (finally) announced that additional placement funding will be provided to support the planned growth of ‘up to 10,000 additional students by 2020’ in pre-registration nursing, midwifery and the allied health professions in England. This welcome news appeared as part of a press release headlining the funding commitment to additional medical school places.

This announcement of additional placement funding was followed by a letter sent by Health Education England (HEE) to all university providers of nursing, midwifery and allied health profession (AHP) education in England during the week of the A level results. It arrived just a day or so before universities formally confirm their offers to students.

The letter confirmed a flat proportional 4.6 per cent increase in the number of placements that HEE will fund at each university for students commencing autumn 2017 or early in 2018.

Although the increase was welcome news, the ‘last-minute’ notification, lack of certainty of the mechanisms by which this funding will be accessed and targeted by universities, and the initial commitment to limit funding for one-year only (2017/18) may mitigate any real impact on recruitment in 2017/18.

Given the political and media spotlight on shortages in the nursing workforce, it is also highly probable that the main focus in allocating ‘extra places’ will be targeted at nursing students.  

I therefore urge caution against too much optimism by the physiotherapy profession in expecting that this additional funding will have material impact on expanding the numbers of physiotherapists by the 500 or so per year needed to meet CSP workforce projections for 2020. Developing and supporting innovative approaches to expanding high quality student placements, does however remain a key priority for the physiotherapy profession.

The impact of new funding implemented in September 2017 – less or more students?

The government consulted on proposed changes to the funding of the education and training of pre-registration nursing, midwifery and AHP pre-registration students in England and published their response in July 2016. Much of the debate on the so-called ‘removal of the bursary’ focused on the risks of applicants being deterred from applying, leading to a potential collapse in numbers of students and under-recruitment to meet workforce demands. There were also concerns about the risks of reversing the positive achievements in ‘widening participation’ and entry to these professions.

Alongside those concerns, it was however recognised that, notwithstanding the potential initial fall in applications linked to replacement of bursaries with student loans and the ‘removal of the cap’ on NHS commissioned places, universities could not grow intakes of students to meet the government target of ‘up to 10,000’ additional students without funding to secure additional placements. This formed a key point of feedback highlighted in the July 2016 consultation response. It is disappointing that it has taken over 12 months of lobbying on placement funding for interim arrangements to finally be confirmed just days before university offers and places are finalised.  

Despite prophecies of doom from those opposed to the ‘removal of the bursary’, current early indications suggest that while there has been (as expected) a fall in the number of applications, the numbers of students who will be recruited to start in 2017/18 will remain at a similar level to previous years. Universities have not however been able to plan for growth due to the challenges of placement capacity. The announced additional funding is therefore welcome news and Universities will now look forward to receiving early confirmation of the longer-term placement funding support and detail of these new arrangements beyond 2017/18.

Professor Ieuan Ellis is pro vice-chancellor (partnerships and region) at Staffordshire University. Follow Ieuan on Twitter

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