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How universities can help solve the UK’s shortage of nurses

Lara Carmona

Associate Director of Policy & Public Affairs
The Royal College of Nursing


The Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock recently acknowledged what those who work in healthcare have known for a long time: the UK’s shortage of nurses is approaching crisis levels.

While it’s positive that the government has committed to tackling the issue of nursing supply, it’s clear that it will take more than just words to secure the changes needed to ensure staffing for safe and effective care is the norm in health and care settings across the UK.

That’s why the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), in partnership with Universities UK and the Council of Deans of Health, is urging the government to encourage more people to study nursing at university.

Universities can, and should, play a central role in addressing the shortage. By providing registered nurses into the NHS, public health and social care, they represent the best means of growing the nursing workforce safely, and at scale.

Fortunately, we are at a point in time that is advantageous for influencing how this might be done, with NHS England currently putting the finishing touches to a ten-year Long Term Plan (LTP) to sustain and transform health and care services. On this our message is clear: without investment to grow the registered nursing workforce, the plan will fail.

It’s for this reason we have published some costed alternatives for higher education funding in England, and developed a clear set of principles to help inform the LTP and the impending Spending Review. The principles – recently communicated to the Secretary of State – call for:

  1. Substantial investment in nursing students and in the development of the existing workforce, including the funding for maintenance, tuition fees, continuing professional development and for hardship. These measures are needed to attract students onto courses, sustain them through registration and further on into a rewarding public service career.

  2. An accountability framework – detailing whose responsibility it is to ensure an adequate supply of registered nurses, and nursing support staff, to meet the health and care needs of our population.

  3. A workforce strategy with credible workforce plans at national, regional and local level – based on transparent, reported data, that reveals numbers and the skill mix in health and social care.

Like universities, the membership of the RCN is motivated to secure the change that is needed. I was therefore pleased to contribute to a policy breakfast produced last month by Health Services Research UK and The Health Foundation, which featured a rich discussion on the evidence for safe staffing , and how we can translate the growing research base into safe staffing practice, including through legislation.

Existing nursing staff and struggling students need a clear signal that help is on the way: leaving staffing levels and workforce plans to market forces is simply not working. The growing political will to tackle this issue is a step in the right direction, and universities are mobilised to do all they can. It is now for the NHS and the government to be bold, and take the radical steps needed to solve this crisis. 

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