Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is to sign off on funding for 250 student nursing and midwifery places in Northern Ireland in an unprecedented move linked to Stormont budget cuts.
The Irish Times has learned that the €10 million investment will result in 200 undergraduate places for students from the Republic and 50 for students from the North. All will study at Northern universities from this coming September. Nursing degree courses are currently split across Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University.
Sources say the Department of Health initiated contact with their Northern counterparts at Mr Donnelly’s request after it emerged that 300 student nursing places were being cut for the 2023/24 academic year in Northern Ireland due to budget constraints amid Stormont’s collapse.
Southern nursing students will have no “golden handcuffs” post-graduation and will be free to work in the North’s healthcare system, according to Northern healthcare sources.
The Irish Times understands the investment is non-recurrent and is a “one-off” due to Stormont’s financial crisis, as part of an “all-island approach”.
It is the first time the Department of Health in the Republic has proactively sought college places for healthcare students as this is usually done by the Department of Higher Education.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said Mr Donnelly has ”made clear the imperative for Ireland to double our number of healthcare graduates, across all disciplines”.
“We can confirm that the department has been engaged in this regard with the third level sector, and all other stakeholders, across the island. Discussions are at an advanced stage in order to bring this about as soon as possible.”
Health chiefs in Northern Ireland on Friday night confirmed the investment by the Republic, with the North’s department of health saying it “welcomes this planned one-year arrangement, which will help maintain the current training infrastructure for pre-registration nurse training ahead of an intended future increase in NI-funded places in the event of additional funding being available”.
“In addition, the NI health service will benefit from the fact students with ROI-funded nursing and midwifery training places in NI universities will do practical training here, making a vital contribution to care for patients,” a Northern Ireland Department of Health spokesman added.
“All those graduating from ROI-funded places will be free to take up employment in the NI health service if that is their preferred option. This planned one-year funding arrangement will be an important practical step in fostering future collaboration across the island of Ireland in the important area of healthcare training, which will be to the mutual benefit of our healthcare systems.”
There are almost 3,000 empty nursing jobs in Northern Ireland, with the largest nursing trade union, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), taking unprecedented strike action in 2019 and last Christmas over “unsafe” staffing levels and pay.
RCN director Rita Devlin described the axing of the 300 student places as an “act of destruction” that would have consequences for years, and cited the fallout after similar cuts were made by Northern health ministers between 2010 and 2015.
The Republic’s involvement comes four months after Mr Donnelly wrote to Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris calling for a “paradigm shift” to increase the supply of medical and nursing graduates.
In an interview with The Irish Times a fortnight ago, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar hinted the plan was afoot when he suggested funding could be made available for some projects in the North “because that might help the situation in Northern Ireland where there’s a real budget squeeze”.
Mr Varadkar cited the co-funding of the A5 road to Derry, adding: “That’s the kind of conversation we’re willing to have, as to how we can identify other projects.”