This week the new undergraduate nursing students return to university and I have a new group of 27 first year adult nursing students.
I drove up the M1 this afternoon listening to the omnibus edition of Woman’s Hour, which had a report on starting university and kept seeing cars laden up with luggage and what looked like students and parents. I wondered if some of them were heading to us at Leeds.
This is the first year that student nurses have had to pay full university fees. I have listened to the arguments in support and against this change and while I understand that this may mean that some students will have easier access to funds while at university (albeit with a bigger debt when they leave) I wish we could embrace the new apprenticeship schemes more quickly and more widely.
Nurse education seems ideally suited to the ‘new’ apprenticeship model. Our students need an education that immerses them in clinical practice if they are to hit the ground running once they qualify. However, nurses also need a degree-level education to enable them to make sense of the information they will need to process if they are going to make sound clinical judgements and decisions. It feels as though the new degree-level apprenticeships were almost designed for nursing and if I had a child who wanted to become a nurse I would encourage them to pursue a nursing apprenticeship.
However, funding challenges will limit the available number of nurse apprenticeships. Inevitably there will be parallel educational systems for nurses with most students paying a large sum of money to train as many would-be nurse apprentices will be unable to access a nursing apprenticeship. In particular, mature students who may have considered starting nurse education after having a family via an apprenticeship route are less likely to be able to take on the burden of student debt for nurse training. The reduced numbers of these students will be a loss to our profession as their life experience and maturity bring real value to the nursing profession.
This seems such a missed opportunity at a time when there is a desperate shortage of registered nurses in the UK. Nurses from abroad are understandably reluctant to work in the UK after the Brexit vote, and a large proportion of the nursing workforce are approaching retirement age. We really need to be attracting a new generation of nurses as fast as possible.
I hope that the new student nurses I meet this week and all the others around the country get the financial, academic and personal support they need to enable them to join our profession. Nursing is such a worthwhile profession but not a very well-paid one. If we are to ensure we have enough nurses to meet the health needs of our country we need to offer creative education solutions that are affordable and attractive to potential students.