HEALTH academics fear millions of pounds worth of grant could transfer from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to National Health Service employers, under government plans.
Ministers are said to want all costs of degree courses for students in nursing, midwifery and professions allied to medicine to be funded through the Department of Health from 1998.
The changes, which could involve a transfer of more than Pounds 150 million, will involve more than 7,000 nurses and hundreds of other full and part-time students in allied subjects.
When Frank Dobson, secretary of state for health, made the announcement late last month, nursing organisations welcomed it, believing it meant only that the DOH would pay student tuition fees and bursaries.
Now it seems the DOH will also be responsible for the whole unit cost of the student, including infrastructure and capital costs. This will mean millions of pounds for nursing degrees being controlled by the new NHS consortia of hospital trusts and other health providers, which take over from NHS regional offices in April.
It has raised fears over the future academic freedom of these courses.
The DOH said this week that it was unlikely that research money would be transfered, but that this still needed to be clarified.
HEFCE understands that the block grant it now administers would transfer to the DOH along with tuition fees. In a letter to universities it says: "The intention is that the HEFCE grant should cease in due course."
Until now, 90 per cent of people preparing to be nurses were on diploma courses purchased through regional NHS offices and eligible for an NHS bursary. The remaining 10 per cent were supported through HEFCE and were eligible for student loans and grants, which were usually not as generous as the bursary.
Dearing's recommendation that students should pay fees threatened to make the inequalities of the system worse and caused the government to act.
Diana Green, pro vice chancellor at the University of Central England, said: "The government has made a sensible decision in one area, but hasn't thought through the implications of the transfer. The sums we are talking about are huge." She said UCE nursing courses alone would give control of about Pounds 8 million to the new local consortium.