Staff alarmed about birth of NHS monster

October 12, 2001

University staff are alarmed by claims that the University of the NHS will be the largest university in the world, with more than 1 million students, a network of campuses and e-learning facilities.

The claims appear in the University of the NHS prospectus, published by the Department of Health and sent to applicants for the post of chief executive of the university, which was advertised last week. The prospectus also says that the university will "quality assure and accredit existing training".

A spokesperson for the Council of Deans of Nursing said: "Establishing a separate chartered university with its own campuses across the country is an enormous diversion of resources that will duplicate existing provision." The spokesperson said that the NHS and universities have been working to develop a partnership in recent years. "The NHS University, as outlined in its prospectus, seems to run counter to the spirit of partnership that was being achieved."

The DoH has said that some new money will be made available. The NHS already spends £2 billion a year on education and training.

Michael Powell, executive secretary of the Council of Heads of Medical Schools, said: "We have serious concerns. This will be very costly to set up. Is the money coming out of existing budgets? We have been assured that initial professional education will not be touched, but what is to stop the University of the NHS, once it has degree-awarding powers, from running medical degrees?" The prospectus, signed by health secretary Alan Milburn, makes no mention of the Department for Education and Skills.

The DoH has already made it clear that there will be no formal consultation.

A spokesperson said: "We are taking a very inclusive approach to the design and development of the NHS University, and once a chief executive designate is appointed, we will have further discussions with internal and external stakeholders."

Both the DFES and the DoH made it clear last week that the working title for the NHS University, while it seeks university status, is NHSU. But the prospectus refers to the NHS University.

Sir Martin Harris, chair of Universities UK's health committee, said: "The use of the university title for the NHS lifelong learning organisation risks confusing students, staff and patients because individual universities already work closely with the NHS to prepare health professionals, to undertake research and to deliver patient care. The title 'university' is reserved for institutions that offer recognised programmes that meet the DFES's criteria. The NHSU's early proposals suggest that it would not fulfil those criteria."

The prospectus says that the NHS University will be "the best of a bricks and clicks approach". There will be a central hub supported by local resource centres, or faculties, based in the new NHS Workforce Development Confederations.

On quality, it says: "Over the next year we will begin quality-checking existing courses and linking them into early NHS University programmes."

Health courses at degree level have to comply with the requirements of regulatory bodies as well as those of the Quality Assurance Agency. Others are subject to regulation by bodies such as City and Guilds. It is not clear how the university can assess its own courses.

* The Open University is to launch a nursing diploma that could see 1,000 healthcare assistants a year upgrading their skills.

The work-based scheme was set up in partnership with NHS trusts and the South East London Workforce Development Confederation. It has won validation from the English National Board for Nursing.

It is just the sort of course that the NHS University is seeking to encourage. The OU has been in close discussions with the Department of Health about the NHSU. It already has 12,000 students taking undergraduate courses in its School of Health and Social Welfare, and several thousand more studying non-assessed learning materials.

Jan Walmsley, the dean of the school, said: "The pre-registration certificate will open access to nursing to healthcare professionals who have historically been low paid, with little chance of professional advancement."

She said that practice placements would form the core of the course and that students would be able to access learning resources at home, at work and in local venues for face-to-face teaching. Each student would have a tutor to provide supervision and support.

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