Open University-Style Training for Nurses – Answer to Nursing Shortages of the Future?

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Distance learning as a route to upgrading nursing qualifications is already well-established throughout the world with large numbers of nurses completing Bachelor’s, Masters and Doctoral Degrees via this route. But “earn and learn” to qualify as a nurse?

The United Kingdom Secretary for Health, Jeremy Hunt, recently announced that he is seriously considering distance learning as an option for meeting the nursing staff crisis in the UK. Nursing recruits would study for their degrees through distance education while training on the job at a hospital as apprentices.

“It makes more sense to have an Open University style of training where they can have the option of living at home, training at their local hospital where the teaching is brought to them via computer and with tutors coming out to where they are based,” explained Labour MP, John Mann.

A large number nursing degree apprenticeships for those unable to go to university full-time have already been created with the NHS and students can complete their studies over up to five years instead of the usual three years. Hunt also announced at a conference in October last year that he intends to create 14,500 apprenticeships by 2019. The Royal College of Nursing was cautiously optimistic about this development but expressed concern that students would be used to fill gaps in the current workforce which could dilute the quality of their training. Over many decades the nursing profession fought hard worldwide to place nursing education on a proper footing and to move it away from students being a “pair of hands.”

Currently, most of the nurse apprentices attend nearby universities for their formal coursework.  However, the Open University in the UK is already offering B.Sc (Honours) degrees in Adult Nursing and Mental Health Nursing through distance learning. Those who wish to enroll in this course have to be working in a healthcare environment already and need their employer’s support. The course makes provision for attending some compulsory tutorials and meetings as well as supervised practice learning periods, and portfolios of portfolios of practice assessments.

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In Australia, six universities already make provision for online courses to qualify as a registered nurse with a Bachelor’s degree. The students do need to consider location as all require some attendance at the facility, usually in blocks of a few days.

Distance education holds the advantage of studying where you are already situated – it is especially valuable for those who have families of their own. It is usually less costly and also more flexible in the sense that people can learn at their own pace – fitting studies into their current life. Practice training is done at nearby healthcare facilities and during sessions arranged by the university, either on campus or under the guidance of a facilitator.

Digital advances have made the concept of offering distance learning degrees to qualify as a nurse much more feasible than it was just one or two decades ago.  The questions remain whether a high quality of education can be maintained and whether those in charge will be able to prevent a fall back to the apprenticeship-type of training – where students are misused to fill gaps in staffing to the detriment of their learning.

Frieda Paton is a registered nurse with a Master’s degree in nursing education. Her passion for nursing education, nursing issues and advocacy for the profession were ignited while she worked as an education officer, and later editor, at a national nurses’ association. This passion, together with interest in health and wellness education since her student days, stayed with her throughout her further career as a nurse educator and occupational health nurse. Having reached retirement age, she continues to contribute to the profession as a full-time freelance writer. In the news and feature articles she writes for Nurseslabs, she hopes to inspire nursing students and nurses on the job to reflect on the trends and issues that affect their profession and communities - and play their part in advocacy wherever they find themselves.

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