The National Health Service's planned university aims to enrol 250,000 students over the next four years, playing a vital role in improving healthcare skills in the UK, its long-awaited strategy document has revealed.
The NHSU, which published its strategy document at its official launch last week, aims to meet its recruitment target for learners by 2008.
The university will specialise in continuing professional development and will prioritise postgraduate and foundation degree provision.
But after negotiations between the Department of Health and Universities UK, the NHSU will not offer medical or nursing degrees. These will continue to be the preserve of universities.
Every other type of qualification is fair game for the NHSU.
Speaking at the launch, higher education minister Alan Johnson said: "I look forward to the day when NHSU offers learning at every level, from the 14-year-old in school to the postgraduate. NHSU will have a key part to play in taking forward the government's skills strategy."
Health minister John Hutton said: "The potential of this organisation to change the culture of the NHS cannot be underestimated. NHSU will make a difference in every area, from communication skills to advanced skills in first-contact care, and for all staff at every level."
NHSU chief executive Bob Fryer said that the NHSU would ensure that 55 per cent of its learners participated in higher education.
The NHSU has been designated a Special Health Authority. Professor Fryer described this as a staging post as the NHSU moved away from the DoH and towards full university status.
But while the document sets out the NHSU's intention of becoming a university, it gives no time frame. It is awaiting the outcome of the Department for Education and Skills review into degree-awarding powers and the university title.
The NHSU, first announced as a pledge in the 2001 election manifesto, will receive core funding from the DoH of £30 million in 2003-04. This will rise to £80 million in 2005-06.
But by 2006 the university intends 50 per cent of its budget to come from bodies other than the DoH, including the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Learning and Skills Council, Regional Development Agencies and the European Union.
The NHSU will also charge for products and services, although the strategy document makes clear that in the early stages courses will be paid for by the employer rather than the learner.
It will not carry out clinical or biomedical research or do clinical trials. But the NHSU's Learning Needs Observatory will identify and research learning and knowledge gaps in the NHS. It will also seek to quantify the efficacy of the courses it provides and the improvements they bring to patients.
Professor Fryer said that a joint report on the role of the NHSU in building research capacity in the NHS would shortly be presented to him and Sir John Pattison, director of research and development at the NHS.
A UUK spokeswoman said: "UUK welcomes the NHS commitment to addressing the current lack of attention to staff development for staff without professional qualifications, since this is likely to contribute to improved patient care and support new patterns of healthcare delivery."
The board of the NHSU was also announced last week. It includes Robert Abberley, assistant general secretary of Unison, and Chris Humphries, chairman of UK Skills.
Transforming roles in the health service
The NHSU's first contact care programme is a two-year part-time masters course already operating on four pilot sites with 39 students.
It will allow nurses and other health practitioners, who have long been the first point of contact for many patients, to treat and diagnose patients themselves. The course is work-based and is validated by Sheffield Hallam University.
Neil Johnson, director of learning programmes at the NHSU, said:
"Courses such as this aim to transform roles within the NHS, allowing health workers to gain qualifications that are recognised nationally."
Clare Allen, head of the programme, said: "Nurses in accident and emergency will be able to assess patients and either discharge them or recommend them for further treatment. Pharmacists will be able to assess people who come into a chemist."
She stressed that practitioners were taught to operate within their professional boundaries and to understand their limitations. "It is as much about what you don't know as what you do know," she said.