Supporting our future workforce: NHS Learning Support Fund

In December 2019, the government announced updates to the NHS Learning Support Fund whereby additional funding will be made available for students studying healthcare courses from September 2020. Here, Louisa Ruman, discusses how the project team managed to deliver the project not only on time, but in the middle of a global pandemic!

Hi, I’m Louisa Ruman and I’m Head of Student Services based at Hesketh House in Fleetwood. We’re responsible for administering student funding on behalf of the Department of Health and Social Care for medical and dental, healthcare and social work students while at university.

Our plan

Following the government’s announcement to introduce additional funding, a project team was formed bringing together expertise from across the business. We worked closely with our Technology department to design and build a brand new digital online application and account system for our students. This was based on our extensive knowledge and experience working with students and universities for many years. Our staff had a lot of input into the design as they deal with the day-to-day queries from students so knew what they were looking for.

As a project team, we were looking at working to very tight deadlines from the outset as the system had to be ready to launch for students starting their course in September 2020. In January 2020 the project team was formed, and work began. Then, just as we were getting into the swing of things, we were hit with the onset of a global pandemic as coronavirus took hold.

A global change

Immediate changes were made and everyone had to adapt to working at a distance and instead of the big meetings where details would be ironed out, we had to get used to using MS Teams as staff were working from home, with a few remaining in the offices.

Despite this unforeseen challenge, everyone adapted extremely well and collaboration among all areas of the business was excellent. Everyone pulled together and there was a real sense of teamwork and support among the whole team.

Even though we couldn’t undertake the user research and focus groups we had initially intended as a result of the restrictions in place, we were still able to engage with universities and a small group of students were brought onboard to test the system for us. Their feedback was provided to the development team and the changes were made for the system’s go live date of 1 July.

We also had to completely change our engagement plans; usually, we would undertake ‘LSF on Tour’ visits to universities so needed a different way to reach our primary audience; healthcare students. We set up Facebook Live sessions on our NHS LSF Facebook page and these were a massive success. Over three sessions held before go live we managed to reach over 200,000 people and we received over 3,000 comments from current and potential students asking about the funding.

Around 180 Student Services and CCS staff were trained remotely for the first time. All staff were brilliant and adapted to this new way of working with ease meaning everyone could get the necessary training in time for us to push that go live button.

Success for go-live

Go live day was a big day for us all in the project team; we needn’t have been worried as it was a huge success!

On that first day, we received over 30,000 applications from students which was phenomenal! It was a huge credit to the whole collaborative team from across the NHSBSA  who did an amazing job on building a robust system and process. A well-received product was delivered that weathered the storm of an onslaught of applications.

What’s next?

A successful launch day was just the start. We’re currently working on the next phase to launch a new university portal. This is a completely new platform for Student Services and will make sharing information with universities much easier. We have again been working with some universities who have been providing feedback on this new portal which will feed into the final product.

Later this year, we’ll be starting to look at adding updates to the NHS LSF system with a view to eventually having a completely digital application process for students.

At the start of September, we have had over 70,000 applications for NHS LSF. The projected target from DHSC was around 100,000 so we’re well on the way, and with non-standard starters (those whose courses start in January to May) still to apply, things are looking good. This is also great news, as it means there’s a heightened interest in people studying healthcare courses, with UCAS reporting a 14% increase from 2019 application numbers, which means good things for our future NHS workforce.

I’m really pleased with how the project team came together in what really are unprecedented times for us all. I’m delighted that we can do our bit to help ease the financial concerns of students while studying at university and ultimately complete their courses to provide the next generation of our NHS workforce.

For more information about the NHS Learning Support Fund, please visit our website as well as our Facebook and Twitter pages for the latest updates.