The NHS University is no threat to institutions - it can work only in partnership, argues Chris Ham.
In a people business such as healthcare, the quality of service offered to patients depends first and foremost on the availability of well-qualified staff who treat users with dignity and respect. That is why the creation of the NHS University was a key part of the government's manifesto at the June general election.
Although the National Health Service makes a significant investment in staff development, there are wide variations between NHS organisations and occupations in the volume and quality of educational provision. Working closely with its partners in the NHS and higher education, the NHSU will in time help to tackle this variation, improve standards of care and ensure all staff have the skills they need.
Early priorities will include the development of a common induction programme for staff, training in communications skills and access to management and leadership development programmes. All completed courses will grant credits that will count towards awards and qualifications.
The government wants the NHSU to be able to offer its own degrees as well as to provide access to degrees offered by existing universities. It will take time to meet the standards required by the Department for Education and Skills and, until then, the institution will not be able to call itself a university.
When it is established, the NHSU will use e-learning to reach as many staff as possible. This will mean developing and commissioning high-quality materials to be delivered via the internet and other means. E-learning will be supported by face-to-face support in the workplace and elsewhere.
None of this will happen unless the NHS works in partnership with existing educational providers and NHS staff already engaged in education, training and development. This will require full discussions with all those concerned.
A dialogue has already begun with Universities UK to explain the government's plans for the NHS and to establish how universities can help implement these plans. Universities and other key stakeholders will be involved in a planning seminar this month. This will lead to the creation of a steering group that will advise the Department of Health on the development of its plans.
The appointment of a chief executive designate for the NHSU is imminent. New resources have been made available to fund the chief executive and a project team as they work towards the planned launch date of autumn 2003. The budget should increase over time as public expenditure priorities allow and as the NHSU becomes established.
The NHSU will not seek to duplicate the excellent work that has been done to build more effective relationships between the NHS and educational institutions. For example, it will not offer pre-registration training to healthcare professionals or reinvent the wheel where other programmes already serve the NHS well. Rather, it will focus on identifying gaps in current provision and working with education providers to fill them. This may involve developing new learning materials or adapting existing ones and making them available throughout the NHS. The university will also act as a gateway and signpost for NHS organisations and their staff to the range of programmes available in the sector.
The aim is to create a skills escalator within the NHS that will allow staff to acquire skills and qualifications throughout their working lives and to take on additional responsibilities as they do so. In this way, receptionists and porters can train to become healthcare assistants, healthcare assistants can acquire nursing qualifications, and the range of regulated healthcare professionals working in the NHS can extend their roles.
Understandably, there are concerns among universities that a new entrant such as the NHSU will present a threat rather than an opportunity. But in reality, the NHSU will build on, rather than replace, what is already done as well as ensure that opportunities are extended to all.
Chris Ham is director of the strategy unit in the Department of Health and professor of health policy and management at the University of Birmingham.