Student nurses may stop receiving bursaries and instead have to take out loans to pay their tuition fees under plans the Treasury is considering.
Officials are examining the viability of the cost-cutting measure which the chancellor, George Osborne, could announce in his spending review next Wednesday.
Civil servants are weighing up the potential unpopularity of the move, and the risk of it worsening the existing shortage of NHS nurses, against it potentially freeing up around £800m a year for the government.
It is one of a series of cuts to non-frontline areas of NHS activity and funding that Treasury officials are examining as part of a division of the Department of Health’s ringfenced £116bn annual budget into protected and non-protected areas.
Public health has already suffered a £200m cut and there are also likely to be fewer or less rigorous inspections of hospitals and GP surgeries as part of savings forced on the Care Quality Commission, the NHS care watchdog.
The axeing of public funding for future generations of nurses would be controversial. The boss of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) warned that ending financial support could hit recruitment by putting off people from poorer backgrounds and those considering a change in career.
“Anything that makes people worse off and puts people off from becoming nurses, and reduces the link between student nurses and the NHS, would be a big loss to our society and put us in a precarious position,” said Janet Davies, the RCN’s general secretary and chief executive. She described the plan as “not helpful”.