A report suggests that the number of nursing students with debts of more than £20,000 has virtually doubled in the past year.
Unison's survey shows that some students had accumulated debts of more than £25,000, with the average standing at over £7,000, which is a 26% increase on a year ago.
And the union said that more than two thirds of the 650 students it polled were forced to work extra hours to earn more money so they could make ends meet.
Gail Adams, Unison's head of nursing, said: "Sadly, health students are getting a real crash course in debt. A newly-qualified nurse earns just £19,683 a year - it will take years to clear these crushing debts.
"We need a fairer system, and that means giving health students a proper salary. A student nurse on a bursary gets well below the legal minimum wage.
"Students spend 50% of their time or 2,000 hours in practical work on the wards. This works out to just £3.14 an hour for diploma students outside London, which amounts to very cheap labour and reeks of exploitation.
"It cannot be right that 38% of students work more than 53 hours a week and yet debt is still rising. It's not good for patients and it's certainly not good for the students."
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"Pay nurses a salary when they work their practical part of their education. This is slave labour. Making a student work full
time on the ward in training and then not pay them. Shocking abuse of students" - Ausirez Christensen, Scandinavia
"This is practically true. I am a student nurse in debt as well. I can not even afford to pay for my house rent with the bursary I receive. The Haringey Counsel took back the flat they gave me when I became a student. They said, "students are not entitled to housing benefits". This is unfare. I now end up in combining my full time study with working extra hours, just to make ends meet. I used to be a brilliant "A GRADE" student, but my result in this nursing programme "has nothing to write home about".
Each time I see my sesults, I burst out into taers. Why? Because I hardly read my books due to extra workload. My four younger ones are dependent on me for their study and upkeeping. Our parents died in my teens, and I'm the only one taking care of them. I really need help, but who will listen to me? Nobody!!! I am soliciting on behalf of student nurses and newly qualified nurses. THE GOVERNMENT (NHS) SHOULD DO SOMETHING TO HELP US UNTILL WE STAND FIRM WITH A PERMANENT JOB. I will stop here by saying, Many THANKS in anticipation for wanting to help us now." - Ifeanyichukwu F. Nwabia, Final Year Student Nurse, Middlesex University, Enfield/Archway
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