A reorganisation of the funding of medical, nursing and other healthcare students will bring stable funding and long-term investment to many new universities - but medics fear that it will also mean cuts in funding for clinical placements.
A briefing note on a consultation document from the Department of Health reveals plans for indefinite rolling contracts for nursing and healthcare education. The National Health Service contracts with universities to provide these courses.
"Traditionally these contracts have had to be renegotiated every five years or so, wasting a huge amount of time," said Paul Turner, executive officer of the Council of Deans of Nursing. "This has made long-term investment in staff and buildings difficult."
In some universities - mainly new ones - these contracts account for 15 per cent of turnover. "They will now be on the same sort of footing as higher education funding council monies," Mr Turner said.
The DoH is also proposing a standard price in the contracts, after the National Audit Office found wide variations.
The DoH consultation document, expected to be published in full next week, is also set to propose a "fundamental reappraisal of the support for all practice placements". There is currently no separate funding stream for clinical placements for nursing and other healthcare students. "This has made expansion into the primary health care and other areas very difficult," Mr Turner said.
But clinical placements for medics in hospitals have always been funded through a levy, although it is widely acknowledged that some of this money has been used for the service requirements of large teaching hospitals. The briefing note says: "Over time, placement support should be redirected to support all healthcare training in the NHS."
Robert Boyd, chairman of the Council of Heads of Medical Schools, said:
"This is an opportunity for reform, but equally it could all go wrong."
Any announcement on new money is expected after the comprehensive spending review. At a meeting last month of the British Medical Association's clinical academics, many spoke of the "avaricious eyes" focused on the levy.
The note says that there should be a "re-basing of funds to distinguish resources supporting learning and development from those supporting service, research and development or other activities".
Professor Boyd supported the move to greater transparency: "Clarity of resourcing will mean that money can be clearly associated with the education spend."