By RCM Policy Advisor Charlotte Wilson
Midwifery is a demanding degree at the best of times, and for years this has been exacerbated by a lack of adequate financial support. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, midwifery students faced additional hardships and significant disruption to their studies. In July 2020, we surveyed our student membership to learn about their experience. We received 345 responses accounting for 5% of our student membership.
Based on the responses we received, we found that when the pandemic began, 97 per cent of first year students had their clinical placement ended, and even though the majority of first year students were able to continue with the academic element of their course, 80 per cent felt the pandemic had impacted on their ability to study ‘a great deal’. This means first years will need to manage continuing adjustments to their programme to make up lost time.
A further 50 per cent of second- and third-year students also had their clinical placements ended. However, a significant proportion of these students (70%) were later deployed to support the maternity care workforce. While deployed, second- and third-year students faced considerable lack of clarity as to their position, and delays in receiving both contracts and pay. When responding to our survey, 28 per cent of second- and third-year students had not been given a contract, and a further 27 per cent had not been paid.
In addition, 40 per cent of students who were deployed reported that they did not have protected study time – as required by the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s emergency standards*. A further 41 per cent felt they did not have sufficient time to prepare for exams or coursework, and almost half (47%) felt they were not able to balance work and study.
Most concerningly, at the time they were surveyed, only 36 per cent of graduating students had received a job offer as a newly qualified midwife. Given the public investment required to train a midwife, as well as the continuing shortages of midwives in many areas, it is vitally important that newly qualified midwives can move seamlessly from training to employment.
Unfortunately, students’ troubles do not end here. Even if the UK can avoid a second wave of COVID-19 infections, the current cohorts of students will be playing catch-up for the foreseeable future. This will be especially difficult without adequate financial support. Although the Scottish government will provide a welcome and substantial increase to student midwives’ bursaries in 2020/21; in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, students face continuing difficulties when it comes to supporting themselves financially throughout their degree.
To make matters worse, continued underfunding of midwifery courses means universities may be underprepared to support continuing and future midwifery students. There is a continued downward trend in the number of midwifery teaching staff per institution, and while our midwifery educators strive to provide high-quality education and training, the lack of staffing will inevitably impact the quality of students’ education. The UK governments have made a series of laudable commitments to improving maternity services. If these commitments are to be realised, the Governments must do all they can to ensure that maternity services are future-proofed. This means ensuring universities and employers are sufficiently resourced and ensuring our future midwives are properly supported.
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