Lost opportunity left in limbo

April 15, 2005

The end of the NHSU represents a failure of vision and public-sector values, argues Andy Pike

The demise of the National Health Service University is a sorry affair. It was a Labour manifesto commitment but it has disappeared without a trace, leaving staff and students stranded and question marks over the millions spent so far. Why did it fail? Some commentators have speculated that the abolition of the NHSU resulted from pressure applied by established institutions concerned that the NHSU had overextended its remit. That's a red herring. The reasons are more complex.

When it was announced last autumn that the NHSU was to be merged with the NHS Modernisation Agency and the NHS Leadership Centre, there appeared to be some logic to the idea. All three organisations were developing learning programmes aimed at health service staff, and it made sense to consolidate them in a new NHS Institute of Learning, Skills and Innovation.

Since that initial announcement, the vision for the institute has changed to the extent that virtually none of the existing NHSU learning programmes will continue. In future, according to the blueprint developed by civil servants, strategic health authorities (SHAs) will be responsible for lifelong learning in the NHS.

But while SHAs will once again have responsibility for delivering learning, it appears that they will have few resources. The role they can play will be restricted to allocating funding to NHS trusts but without any strategic overview to meet the learning needs of the staff.

All this will leave the NHSU's 75,000 students high and dry, not to mention the questions that must be asked regarding the £60 million invested annually in the NHSU, an investment that will be lost once learning programmes are cancelled. This is a crying shame. The NHSU stood a real chance of delivering lifelong learning, independent of the relationships between SHAs and the Department of Health.

It was working towards developing programmes of learning, based on the needs of NHS staff rather than on the strategic and political priorities set for the NHS by Whitehall.

By abolishing the NHSU, Labour has ensured that the provision of lifelong learning remains in-house, within the same boardrooms of the same SHAs that so conspicuously failed to deliver for so long. It has lost an opportunity to research the area properly - remember the NHSU learning needs observatory? It promised to identify learning gaps, plug them and monitor the success of courses. Where is it now?

All this leaves the learning institutions that had developed partnerships with the NHSU in limbo. It seems to me that those behind the decision to destroy the NHSU could do with a course in public-sector ethics.

It might teach them that in the NHS, as in higher education, decisions must be based on the needs of the service rather than on the personal needs of individuals in senior management roles. Lecturers' union Natfhe stands ready to meet those learning needs.

Andy Pike is national official for higher education at lecturers' union Natfhe.

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