Scrapping bursaries for occupational therapy students

Bursaries for OT undergraduates are about to disappear, so university students will need to apply for loans

Student places on accredited occupational therapy degrees are currently commissioned by the NHS, which also pays tuition fees. The health service contributes to living expenses, and an additional means-tested amount – up to a maximum of £4,442 outside London – is available.

But it’s all change from September next year. The commissioning system in England is due to be abolished, and occupational therapy (OT) university students, along with other allied health profession undergraduates, will have to apply for a loan to cover their tuition fee costs and apply for a maintenance loan.

The government argues the reform – which brings funding for these students into line with other undergraduates – will address the shortage of health professionals. Places will no longer be capped, allowing universities to recruit up to 10,000 more students to health profession degree courses, say ministers.

Prof Priscilla Harries, head of the department of clinical sciences at Brunel University London and an OT, welcomes the change – with reservations. The old funding system was inadequate: “The amount of money students could borrow wasn’t enough to live on. They weren’t allowed to borrow extra money, and they weren’t eligible for our university scholarships because their tuition fees were paid. The new package, which increases the amount of money they can have available to them during their course, is better.”

The College of Occupational Therapists is neutral about the change. Julia Skelton, director of professional operations, says: “On the one hand, universities may feel less restrained as they will no longer be allocated training places. But the running costs of health courses are much higher than those of other courses: a £9,000 tuition fee won’t cover the cost of the course.”

Practice placements are compulsory for OT students, but Harries warns that there is no extra government money to fund extra placements. Heather Davidson, programme leader on the occupational therapy BSc at Salford University, adds: “If we wanted to increase our numbers, we’re not sure that we have enough placement provision.”

In future OT master’s courses, students will only be entitled to a £10,000 loan to cover tuition fees and living costs, not enough to meet the typical fee of £11,000 or £12,000. Master’s students may be deterred from applying, says Harries, even though they qualify more quickly and bring valuable research skills to the workforce.

The government’s proposals are now out for consultation but Davidson wonders “how we make sure we train that increased number to the same quality”.

The reforms only apply to England. The Welsh government will still commission occupational therapy places, pay tuition fees and provide bursaries for students from the UK. In Scotland, the commissioning system no longer exists, but students from the UK will have their tuition fees paid by the Scottish government and can apply for a student bursary and cost-of-living grant

Rachel Pearce, studying for a BSc in occupational therapy at Brunel University
rachel“Not having a bursary sounds scary, but look at the facts and you can see you’ll have more money available.”

Rachel Pearce, 38, graduated from Glasgow School of Art with a textiles degree in 2000, and worked first in a fabric shop then in a furniture store. During her first degree, she had supported herself by working as a nursing home healthcare assistant, a role she found particularly fulfilling: “I realised that was where I was most happy and that I wanted to do something where I was helping people. I discovered occupational therapy, and it was such a rewarding career that I thought, this is definitely right for me.”

Now in the final year of her OT degree, Pearce is “very grateful” to have received a bursary: “It’s been helpful for me, but it has not been sufficient to live on, and I still have to do part-time work to cover my costs.”

She thinks that the new loans and maintenance grant system might work better: “Not having a bursary sounds more scary, but when you look at all the facts, you see that you will have more money available. When you start work as a band 5 OT, you earn around £21,000, so the repayment is only about £5 a month, which is a lot more affordable than I realised.”

Pearce says the new system would have helped her: “To have that bit of extra money makes such a difference, so that you don’t have the added stress.

This appeared on The Guardian wesbite

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