The National Health Service University may eventually provide courses for patients as well as staff, the incoming chief executive Bob Fryer said this week.
"In a patient-centred NHS, courses for patients are the way forward. It would be wonderful to see a computer on every ward, accessible to staff and patients alike. Cancer patients in particular have been known to benefit from understanding their condition. " Professor Fryer, who takes up the post today, does not yet know the NHSU's budget. Workforce development confederations and universities are concerned that the £2 billion spent annually by the NHS on education and training will be top-sliced for the NHSU.
Professor Fryer confirmed that the NHSU's main focus will be courses aimed at those without professional qualifications, providing a skills escalator for staff, as well as continuing professional development.
He said: "Universities run pre-registration courses well and have invested considerable sums in them. The NHSU will not encroach on that. However, there may be some things we can do for universities."
The NHSU could, for example, develop teaching modules on ethics and working in the NHS culture that universities could adapt for their own purposes.
Professor Fryer confirmed that the NHSU, which will be launched in 2003, will seek the university title through the normal channels. For now it will seek accreditation from the Open University and City and Guilds.
"The NHSU hopes to run degree-level courses for managers and other staff, but this will take more time," Professor Fryer said.
He is already holding talks with the OU, hoping to build on their experience of distributed learning. "We aim to have a bricks-and-clicks approach... what is called blended learning," he said.
The OU already has about 15,000 students on degree and non-accredited courses in its school of health and social welfare.
Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, met health secretary Alan Milburn last year and the NHSU was on the agenda.
"A number of IT and software providers are keen to be involved," Professor Fryer said.
"Much of the work in the next few weeks will take the form of scoping exercises, establishing what is already on the table and from whom," Professor Fryer said. "And we are researching into how best to measure the effectiveness of a corporate university such as the NHSU."