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'Barriers to entry: university requirements are not the problem'

Nigel Harrison
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The Open University recently published a report on barriers to entry to nursing. Although this highlighted a number of factors identified by prospective students, it was the suggestion that university entry requirements act as a significant blocker which seems to have attracted the most attention.

Nursing has a particularly strong track record of widening participation. Contrary to the impression given by the Open University report, universities do not generally take a rigid approach to applicant qualifications.

Most consider applicants with a wide range of different education backgrounds and experiences and many offer bespoke support to those who do not present with traditional qualifications.

My own university offers a foundation entry programme in health and social care leading to an interview for nursing, midwifery or a range of allied health programmes.

We have also delivered a bespoke accredited bridging module in provider organisations for healthcare support workers to enable them to meet the entry criteria for pre-registration nursing.

This was developed to acknowledge the significant level of experience and skills these support workers have achieved.

Universities are right to adopt a flexible approach to previous educational achievement and to seek to provide necessary support to students through the course where this is required.

However, we should not be asked to lower entry requirements to the profession in response to current workforce challenges.

Nursing is a rewarding but demanding career and expectations of the profession have just been raised by the NMC’s new standards. Universities must continue to work with local employers to recruit suitable candidates.

This means assessing all applications individually – reviewing existing qualifications, functional skills, an applicant’s values and commitment to the profession. To lower our entry requirements would place unfair pressure on students, would increase programme attrition and could ultimately compromise the quality of care and patient safety.

In some areas, one of the biggest challenges for admissions teams is poor functional English and maths skills in the local population. Some universities include maths and English diagnostic testing and individualised development opportunities embedded in their nursing programmes. A level of support can be offered to students in further and higher education but ultimately this is a problem with school education which needs to be addressed much earlier on.

The Council of Deans of Health is working closely with government, NHS leaders and the Office for Students (OfS) to help attract and retain students.

Nursing should be celebrated for the rewarding and exciting career that it is. Our aging population is expected to present with increasingly complex needs against a background of workforce shortages.

We will need to educate more advanced practitioners and expect to see nurses take on more specialist, leadership, research and education roles. We need to promote the profession widely to ensure we recruit the best possible students with a broad range of interests, experience and talents.

The Council worked last year with the OfS on research into mature student participation and now, as the Council’s education impact portfolio lead, I am personally involved in ongoing OfS research on attracting men into healthcare.

“The Council has called on government to provide additional financial support to help attract and retain healthcare students”

We know that nursing students face unique challenges around placement requirements and travel and have a longer academic year leaving fewer opportunities for part-time work.

The Council has called on government to provide additional financial support to help attract and retain healthcare students. We would support the introduction of a maintenance grant for all students and free tuition for postgraduate students. Specific consideration should be given to the needs of mature students and those with caring responsibilities.

Meanwhile, universities continue to innovate to provide opportunities for as many students as possible to study nursing. This now includes apprenticeship routes and, in some universities, options for digital and distance learning.

Professor Nigel Harrison is executive dean, Faculty of Health and Wellbeing, at the University of Central Lancashire and lead for education impact at the Council of Deans of Health.

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