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Future-proofing the workforce: flexible training for nurses

Sally Boyle, Head of School in the Faculty of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care at The Open University, discusses recruiting and retaining more nurses through flexible training…

The UK needs more nurses; this is a simple fact. Despite the number of nurses on the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) register increasing by 20,000 over the past five years, there are still 11,000 advertised vacancies for full-time nurses in the NHS in England - and while healthcare providers are understaffed, patient care is at risk.

Uncertainty around nurses' right to remain post-Brexit has seen new registrations from the EU fall from more than 10,000 in 2015/16 to just 800 in in the year 2017/18*, so it is essential we look to cultivate a more sustainable pipeline of nursing talent both within the UK itself as well as from wider sources of international recruitment.

Breaking Barriers

Important steps have been taken to increase the number of places available to study nursing in the UK over the past five years, but now, research in The Open University’s latest report, Breaking Barriers into Nursing, reveals that six per cent of those places went unfilled in the last current academic year. This equates to 1,450 nurses each year who could have been fully trained and ready to support the NHS within three or four years. Sally Boyle on flexible training for nurses

Three in 10 young people considered studying to become a registered nurse - so it is clear that there must be significant barriers acting to deter many from doing so. Removing these barriers, or helping people to overcome them, could encourage more people to enter the profession and have a significant positive impact on the NHS.

With the introduction of student loans to replace bursaries for nursing study in England, cost is undoubtedly a major disincentive to many, particularly mature students – but the associated costs (course materials, commuting, living) also pose a problem for prospective students across the UK.

Along with cost, there are a number of other important issues to consider: travel, entry requirements, workload, and even the advice made available at school or college. Thankfully, however, there are a number of potential solutions to these that higher education providers and NHS employers could consider in order to improve both recruitment and retention in the sector.

As a result of these barriers, many people who may be passionate about entering the profession are unable to study to become nurses, which is adding to the current crisis in nursing. It is time to reconsider the traditional idea of a 'one size fits all' approach to nurse education, which lacks the requisite flexibility that many of those interested in pursuing a career in the profession need. Resultantly, access to learning is limited and participation decreases.

What can be done to help student nurses?

It is important that we give people more options as to how, when and where they study – so that everyone who has the aptitude and values to become a registered nurse has the opportunity to do so. Currently, most higher education Institutions in the UK have entry requirements above the minimum criteria set out by the NMC. These requirements restrict access for many who want to join the profession but who may not have received good educational opportunities in the past. At The Open University, we use a robust open selection process, adhering to requirements specified by the NMC only, which means we’re able to offer places to a much more diverse range of students.

With apprenticeships in England, we are starting to open up new routes into the profession, which can help to widen participation and offer continuous professional development opportunities to support staff members that aspire to become registered nurses. Enabling students to earn while they learn, apprenticeships also remove financial barriers, appealing to those concerned by the cost of study or those who would prefer to go straight into the workforce without a three or four-year period needed for study.

Similarly, by embracing new technology we can deliver more flexible learning methods. Technology-enabled learning, such as that already offered by The Open University, can remove barriers for many people who would prefer to remain in their home locality to study or who are juggling other commitments.

If more providers offered this, it would not only encourage more people to study nursing, it would also reduce the number of nurses who relocate back home following qualification, depriving the town or city which hosted their education of their skills and expertise.

The fact that numbers of EU nurses coming to the UK to work has dramatically dropped gives us no option but to act now – we need to remove the barriers reducing our access to homegrown talent.

At a time when the NHS is facing a nursing supply and demand problem, it is devastating that places remain unfilled or so many of those studying feel unable to continue, when relatively straightforward solutions could help.

*The Nursing and Midwifery Council (2018) The Big Picture