Universities and the NHS forge a healthy alliance

May 24, 2002

It is time to strengthen the strategic links between higher education and healthcare, argues Howard Newby

There has never been a more important time for higher education and the National Health Service to work closely together.

The forces for more effective joint action have been gathering for some time. From the Higher Education Funding Council perspective, this process culminated last month in the joint signing of a statement of strategic alliance for health and social care with the Department of Health.

The statement recognises that clinical service, teaching and research are totally interdependent. The health and education services are responsible for delivering common strategic objectives. These include the development of the NHS workforce, widening access, delivering high-quality education and world-class research, and providing modernised health services.

But perhaps the main impetus for joint action has been the delivery of the government's targets for the expansion of undergraduate places for doctors and nurses, midwives and allied health professionals. More than 2,000 additional medical students are being trained from 2001 to increase the size of the annual intake to medical schools in England to nearly 6,000 by 2006. Universities and colleges are also delivering big increases in the number of nurses and allied health professionals required by the NHS.

Universities and the health service have for some time grappled with managing the complex duties and relationships of staff working for different organisations. The Follett report, following the Alder Hey inquiry, was a wake-up call for a joint approach to human resources, service management and strategic issues. Hefce and the Department of Health's commitment to supporting and valuing staff in institutions with both clinical and academic duties is a key area identified in the strategic alliance. Hefce and the department are working together to ensure that the Follett recommendations for joint action are implemented.

There are two other factors requiring more radical approaches to collaboration. First, both the higher education sector and the NHS are adopting a longer-term strategic approach. The Department of Health is reviewing existing arrangements for liaison between the health and education sectors. At Hefce, we are considering strategic issues affecting the NHS as part of our planning.

Second, there are the implications of the increased impact of additional spending on the NHS, announced in the budget. Improved partnerships will be crucial in delivering value for money. This will require better arrangements for working together, exchanging information and views, cross-representation, monitoring and review.

Key strategic issues we are both addressing are widening participation, research and developing the skills of the NHS workforce. Universities, colleges and the NHS need to work together on meeting the government's targets for increasing and broadening the intake of students in higher education. This is essential not just for achieving fairer access to medical and health-related education, but also for ensuring that the NHS and social care workforce is representative of local communities.

We also have a strong joint interest in building research capacity and funding the research infrastructure in higher education and the NHS. We need to share objectives and priorities for research so that each can consider the implications for research investment. An example of effective collaboration was the announcement this month of a fund to increase the amount of high-quality research related to nursing and allied professions.

The NHS is the country's largest employer, with more than a million staff. Universities and colleges need to work closely with it in developing the skills of these staff through, for example, the University of the NHS initiative and the e-University. The NHS can also be considered as a partner for the purposes of Partnerships for Progression so that Hefce's widening participation agenda can be integrated with the NHS "skills escalator".

All the developments affecting higher education and the NHS will require effective joint action through the new strategic health authorities and primary care trusts. The creation of these bodies provides an opportunity for extending diverse health and education provision.

Through the new strategic alliances, NHS-university partnerships will be at the centre of future healthcare education and research. It is essential that we continue to support the modernisation of the NHS across the organisational boundaries.

Sir Howard Newby is chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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