As we expand and focus on training more support workers in nursing, we must also continue to nurture our degree-educated workforce and the future educators and leaders. By Katerina Kolyva

Nurses

As I look at the nursing workforce through the higher education provision lens, all I see is complexity, reaction and pace. Complexity of routes, offering multiple ways to study nursing when the three-year degree route gets students to become safe professionals steadily and quickly.

Reaction, due to a lack of an overall strategic workforce plan leading to announcement after announcement focusing on input and numbers rather than the bigger picture of safe care and quality outcomes. And pace, as anxiety about gaps in the workforce and genuine risk to the delivery of quality services leads to ad hoc policy decisions, not always aligned cohesively.

As increasing numbers of nursing associates are being announced I can only ask myself one question: have we got the balance right?

There are currently 2,000 nursing associates out there on pilot training courses (a number which doubled in just under six months). Under government plans, a further 5,000 nursing associates will be trained through the apprentice route in 2018, with an additional 7,500 being trained in 2019.

And as the government is putting the focus on this part of the workforce, the current registered workforce is being left with nearly 50 per cent cuts in continuing professional development funding.

As we digest these numbers, there are two areas to think about:

Education provision

Educators, mentors in practice and university staff all work together collaboratively to educate the nursing workforce of today and the future. Clinical placements, accommodation, infrastructure, IT and human resources are often established as part of an overall annual business plan. Responding reactively has its limits and early strategic planning will get us better outcomes.

The government is exploring opportunities for higher education institutions to deliver formal classroom teaching in a more “innovative” way in employers’ facilities

There were cuts to local continued professional development budgets in 2016 of up to 45 per cent, the result of a decision taken at national level to reduce workforce development funding by 49 per cent. This year has seen further cuts, frequently accompanied by late notification of commissioning decisions.

We need to reflect on how this uncertainty and lack of professional development will impact on good education outcomes from an even more diverse student population, with different needs and aspirations.

As part of the workforce expansion, the government is exploring opportunities for higher education institutions to deliver formal classroom teaching in a more “innovative” way in employers’ facilities. Logistics, cost, availability, viable cohorts, provision of academics, availability of accommodation and IT in trusts are just a few of the challenges of this approach.

Both support and leadership roles

The introduction this year by the England chief nursing officer of a new postgraduate route for mental health and learning disability nursing has rightly focused attention on postgraduate programmes that are already well established.

Around 40 postgraduate students will be funded this year to undertake centrally commissioned shortened postgraduate pre-registration nursing courses across three universities, with special emphasis on leadership skills

In 2015-16, 1,670 students were registered on postgraduate pre-registration courses, most of which were two-year degree courses made possible by the prior education and experience of students.

As part of the CNO’s programme, ambitious and committed individuals will be given the opportunity to enter a development scheme to rapidly progress their careers to leadership posts within five to seven years.

Around 40 postgraduate students will be funded this year to undertake centrally commissioned shortened postgraduate pre-registration nursing courses across three universities, with special emphasis on leadership skills. This initiative is most welcome and we are committed to working with the CNO in England to see its expansion.

So back to my initial question: have we got the balance right? As we expand and focus on training more support workers, do we demonstrate equal value for our degree-educated workforce and for those educators and leaders of the future?

And most importantly, are we valuing the existing workforce but reducing its professional development, expecting them to teach and mentor newcomers to the profession in an environment that changes in terms of evidence, digital technology and equipment, faster than ever?