Our Dean of Faculty of Health and Society, Dr Steve O’Brien comments on International Nurses Day about the state of the nursing profession and what University of Northampton has to offer the budding nurse professional.
I remember the day I qualified as a nurse. Back then students took a national exam, so I knew there would be an envelope waiting for me when I got home.
The worry was how big it would be as according to the rumour mill a thick envelope meant a fail, as it had the re-take forms in there! Thankfully, on opening it, I found out I had passed. I wish I could have bottled and corked what I felt then, but something’s are beyond even an ecstatic, newly qualified nurse.
I passed with a relatively small group of other nurses, about a dozen compared to the cohorts of more than 50 we have seen, until relatively recently.
The work was intense although we never saw the volume of acutely ill patients our younger peers see now, but it was still rewarding, with less theory and more hands on practical experience.
You were supported by senior nurses of varying levels of experience and expertise and patients generally presented with only one ailment.
How times have changed during the last 30 years.
The big difference in nursing education is that you now need a degree to become a nurse. The training also involves more theory based in rigorous, scientific evidence and practice.
The NHS is also vast, the biggest single employer in the UK and the political, legal and regulatory landscape around it hugely different.
So, where are we now? Well, we are challenged in higher education provision. A challenge that is simple to describe but rather more complex to explain, but the number of people applying to study to become nurses has dropped.
At University of Northampton, applications to our nursing courses fell by 23% last year and those applications dropped by another 12% this year. This is due to a number of reasons.
Firstly, the number of people applying for degree courses has dropped, across all subject areas and across the whole UK, anyway.
Then there is the perception from potential students about how hard life is as a nurse, reports of a lack of morale in the workforce and, perhaps most strikingly, negative media coverage about the decision to remove the bursary student nurses had previously received to support them.
Not all of these factors can be immediately remedied, but for those like myself who sits on a Council of Deans and who have some influence, we need to put our thinking caps on to sort out what the best funding model might look like, right away.
For me, this means a further re-think with possibly a model where the student pays for part of the fee, a government should pay part of it and then the NHS as a major future employer could pay the student, in a type of apprenticeship scheme as the student nurse begins their studies. Indeed there are already examples of where this is emerging since the removal of the bursary.
The NHS is under pressure to spend its apprenticeship levy that can then pay for the apprenticeship course, but this has to set against the costs of employing apprentices in the first place. It will not be long before the current staff in the NHS who are accessing apprenticeships dries up and then the economics do not stack up.
The advantage of the current three year degree courses are that the cost to the NHS is less because they don’t have to employ them while they are studying. The NHS cost is the mentorship and support they provide for students on placement.
You may say, why not recruit more nurses from overseas, the same brilliant people we have working across the NHS now? But Directors of Nursing report that they are finding it harder to find the right nurses. There are concerns about the over reliance on countries who can ill afford to “export” nurses to the UK and it deflects from the key issue of investing in growing the numbers of home grown nurses.
The introduction of the new role of Nursing Associate will help in the short term to bolster numbers in the workforce but these are not nurses and will therefore have a limited role to play.
It is also imperative that we ensure there is a proper, safe staffing balance between nurses of different experience levels, support staff and those in training, something the government has been remiss to sort thus far.
I don’t want the above to put any possible nurse students off from applying. In fact, quite the opposite. We have a brilliant team of academics, practice based educators and support staff on hand throughout the four nursing disciplines (Adult, Child, Learning Disability and Mental Health) to support nurses in their studies from the offset.
Whether they give help filling in the right student loan forms, being on hand to lend a friendly ear to and even organising regular events to celebrate their achievements, they are signed up to an initiative that runs right through everything we do here.
We call it ‘Be Brilliant’ and this means our lecturers and students aspire to always provide the best care for patients and commit to their studies and teaching with compassion, courage and commitment and to trumpet nurses and their achievements.
It’s not all about wanting to give great care, it’s about having the ‘right stuff’ to do a good job. At Northampton, we instil in our nurses not only pride in their profession, but resilience to deal with shifts that aren’t always brilliant and being able to turn a patient’s death into comforting, reassuring, proactive support for family members.
Coupled with our new, £330m campus in the centre of Northampton that is a stone’s throw from the main hospital in the county, Northampton General, one of our key nursing partners, students get a double dose of superb support and state of the art facilities. And let’s not forget our close links and superb placement opportunities around Northamptonshire, provided by Kettering General Hospital, St. Andrew’s Healthcare, Northamptonshire Healthcare Foundation Trust and Milton Keynes General Hospital.
Perhaps back in the good old days, we had more ‘fun’ than perhaps students do now. We had the chance to actually take a full break off the wards that many nurses in practice now on a 12 hour shift, might think is nursing mythology.
But the world and the NHS has changed since then and we can’t turn the clock back. We need to keep up and continue producing the nurses the NHS and the wider health and social care economy deserves. They in turn will pick up the baton.
I have benefitted from these professionals myself. Ill with sepsis some years ago an astute, observant nurse spotted something that a busy ward doctor had missed. I’m in no doubt she saved my life. Skills that all our nurses acquire through their degree level education.
I remember feeling huge pride that we at University’s like Northampton shape professionals like this, who make a real difference to patients and their families, countless times each day of the week. Now, you can’t bottle that.