Alarm at control by consortia

November 21, 1997

What is the future of nursing education as more school-leavers attend university? Julia Hinde reports

The provision of nursing degrees should be planned centrally and not at a local level, say nursing academics. They fear that giving individual National Health Service consortia responsibility for purchasing degrees could be "fraught with difficulties".

Health minister Frank Dobson last month announced that funding for the teaching of nursing degrees would be transferred from the Department for Education and Employment to the Department of Health, which already pays for most trainee nurses who undertake diploma courses.

The transfer of funding has been largely welcomed, exempting nursing degree students from tuition fees and bringing them more in line financially with diploma students who receive NHS bursaries.

But this week the Council of Deans and Heads of UK Faculties of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting told Mr Dobson they would have reservations if the funding for purchasing nursing degrees was controlled locally.

Their fears were heightened with the news this week that 120 nursing and midwifery jobs at Portsmouth University are under threat. This follows a decision by the NHS Executive South and West to award a nursing training contract to Southampton and Bournemouth universities and to remove it from Portsmouth University, despite Portsmouth's higher score in the research assessment exercise.

Tony Butterworth, chairman of the Council of Deans and dean of the school of nursing at Manchester University, said: "We are concerned at the abilities of the consortia to manage this money. Some consortia are still finding their way. It is our preference that the budget and planning should be controlled nationally. These are national universities."

He points to a recent CVCP survey of 43 university nursing and midwifery departments. The departments said that "short-termism" and volatility of funding made it difficult for institutions to plan programmes and student numbers. There was a lack of transparency in decisions by consortia which often seemed to be governed by the perceived need to reduce price rather than emphasise content and quality of education.

They also said there was a lack of clarity in most cases about the process for negotiating renewal of contracts with an apparent willingness on the part of the purchasers to contemplate withdrawing contracts even where the educational institution had performed well.

Professor Butterworth said: "Historically the Higher Education Funding Council for England has taken a national view giving us an opportunity for long-term planning. This national funding has allowed space for creativity and differences in courses. Consortia may not want this."

A spokesman for the Department of Health said it expected most of the consortia to be ready to handle the funding of degrees from next April.

"There are no plans to reverse the decision to give control to the consortia," he said.

l A spokesman for Portsmouth University expressed surprise at the decision about the NHS Executive South and West contract.

"We thought we stood an excellent chance of securing the contract. But all the indications are we will not be getting it."

He hoped some of the teaching would be franchised by Southampton and Bournemouth universities to Portsmouth.

A spokeswoman for the NHS Executive South and West said: "The process was entered into with a great deal of thought and careful planning."

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