The Wells review could stifle university status plans. Anna Fazackerley and Claire Sanders report.
The National Health Service may be forced to abandon its bid for a university title for its planned teaching institution after a critical government investigation, The Times Higher can reveal.
The government-commissioned Wells review of the NHSU, which was presented to the Department of Health at the end of July but has not yet been made public, is expected to diminish the powers of the proposed university.
A senior source close to the DH said this week: "We have been given an indication that the review is likely to take away the royal charter (to become a university) and to give the NHSU a more prescribed role. The NHSU would largely go away as a major issue for academics."
Any climbdown over the NHSU's role will be an embarrassment for the Government, which pledged to create a university for NHS professionals in its 2001 election manifesto. The DH committed core funding of £30 million to the project in 2003-04, rising to £80 million in 2005-06.
Despite the launch of a strategy document last December, in which the NHSU promised to enrol 250,000 students over the next four years, there is still confusion about the NHSU's purpose.
Andy Pike, national official for higher education at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "We've had mission statements and brochures and roadshows and presentations but no one seems any the wiser about what the NHSU has been up to."
He argued that the NHSU's bid for a university title had become a "symbolic quest" for status, and had distracted from the organisation's core job of providing learning opportunities for NHS ancillary staff.
Sue Bernhauser, the acting chair of the Council of Deans for Nursing and Health Professions, said: "There has been confusion and a lack of clarity about its role in continuing professional development for staff where this overlaps with the large provision of post-qualifying programmes available in most universities. A decision not to pursue the university title may resolve this confusion."
The 13 universities that have won tenders to become NHSU partners are no happier about the way the organisation is developing.
One higher education institution representative told the NHSU annual general meeting last week that there was total lack of clarity about the higher education institution's role.
They said: "We've been asking for clarity from the outset. We don't have any kind of contractual agreement and no one knows where we fit in. We are in danger of becoming a laughing stock."
The representative added: "Many of us are finding it difficult to convince our vice-chancellors to continue with this project."
Sources close to the NHSU report that there was also considerable discontent among the organisation's staff, who had hoped to roll out signifi-cant education programmes this year and are frustrated by the delay.
Bob Fryer, NHSU chief executive, alluded to this in a paper presented to the annual general meeting last week, which states: "I appreciate it is, for some of our staff, a difficult and unsettling period."
Mr Fryer told The Times Higher : "The current policy of the Government is to seek the university title for all or part of the NHSU. If ministers seek to change it, that is their decision."
He added that he understood the frustrations of the NHSU's partner institutions.
He said: "They have been very helpful in providing support and advice, but clearly they will want the possibility of their own learning programmes and services."
But Mr Fryer insisted that the NHSU was clear about what its mission was.