. . . love 'em . . .

July 19, 1996

Another way in which the employment of graduates is changing is by the upgrading of new professions to graduate status. Aconspicuous example is nursing, where the process of absorbing a once separate training system into higher education is now virtually complete.

Last week at Robinson College, Cambridge, the National Directors of Nurse Education Group held its tenth annual conference: its theme was principles into practice, challenges for change. Nursing has brought large extra numbers in to higher education and streams of funding quite separate from the arcane rituals of the higher education funding councils.

Nurse educators, courted for their numbers and their money, are none the less having to grapple with patronising attitudes and misplaced pressures from the institutions they have joined. Universities, anxious to maximise their funding council income, put high research assessments near the top of their list of priorities. Nursing came bottom of the research league in 1992 and the pressure to gear up their performance in research has sometimes been ruthless.

At the same time, nurse educators have been heavily engaged in redesigning their courses to meet the challenges of changing roles, as nurses take on more specialised and advanced work. Here contact with higher education seems to have been more invigorating. The English National Board, which is sponsoring work on advanced practice courses (among other areas), has been surprised at the extent and exuberance of the initiatives now under way.

This is the kind of work which the South African government has been eager to seek out from British universities. Institutions that provide it were among the eight privileged to confer honorary degrees on President Nelson Mandela at Buckingham Palace last week. In his short and graceful speech accepting those degrees, Mandela made clear, in the politest possible way, that the sorts of graduates produced by these kinds of courses are at least as highly valued by his country as the academic products of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

The transformation taking place in British society as we move from a largely unqualified workforce and universities for the few to a situation where as many as possible need qualifications from higher education, is less dramatic than South Africa's. The lack of drama perhaps makes it harder to be clearsighted. We should learn from Mandela to welcome, encourage and reward people with practical capabilities rather than worrying about whether they fit some historically determined model of "graduateness" or whether the jobs they do are "graduate jobs".

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