NHS future workforce: how a university is helping tackle the shortage of nurses

<span>With a national shortage of nurses and midwives, it’s vital to attract young people into the profession – and to retain existing staff</span><span>Photograph: PR IMAGE</span>
With a national shortage of nurses and midwives, it’s vital to attract young people into the profession – and to retain existing staffPhotograph: PR IMAGE

Northumbria University has a long history of training generations of nurses – in fact, it’s not uncommon for the children of former nursing students to follow in their footsteps. “Mothers or fathers have had really good experiences and then the child comes through, and they qualify as a nurse. My daughter’s just graduated too,” says Prof Alison Machin, a former student who is now head of the university’s department of nursing, midwifery and health and chair of the national Council of Deans of Health. “One of the special things about Northumbria is the legacy it has left in the region.”

For a trained nurse, there is a broad spectrum of jobs available, from working in the community to being in intensive care units or making the switch to healthcare management. But in recent years, the demand for nurses and midwives has increased faster than the number being trained in the UK. Over the next 15 years, the population of England is projected to increase by 4.2%, but the number of people aged over 85, who typically need more care, will grow by 55%. The pandemic has also seen more nurses leave the profession. “There’s a perfect storm going on at the moment and there are real challenges,” says Machin.

According to Prof Mark Radford, national director for delivery of the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan and deputy chief nursing officer at NHS England, expanding capacity in universities is vital. With more than 100,000 vacancies in the NHS as a whole, of which 38,000 are in nursing, there is a clear need to act fast. Universities are a key partner in delivering the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, which includes the aim of significantly increasing education and training provision. The plan sets out ambitions to better support those already working in the health sector and to modernise how people work and train, through the creation of new roles and the use of new technologies.

Northumbria is working in partnership with local NHS employers to make sure there are as many routes as possible into the nursing profession. The university was quick to offer the nursing degree apprenticeship and has shortened the route to registration for people who have the entry requirements. Machin says: “People who are very experienced working in a relevant healthcare setting and have the right academic entry requirements can finish within 18 months. We were the first university in the country to do that.”

The apprenticeship programme works especially well for people who are not in the financial position to do the traditional degree course. Dr Gill Findley, deputy chief executive and chief nurse of the Gateshead Health NHS foundation trust, says the university has been “brilliant” at promoting the apprenticeship route. “People can earn on the job, which I think is a massive incentive.”

Another way in which the university sector is helping to improve training, says Radford, is by developing the curriculum and delivering “innovation such as blended learning and simulation”. Northumbria uses virtual reality headsets and 360-degree videos that have been developed by its academic staff, and which complement other teaching methods. These are particularly successful in teaching anatomy and physiology as they help students to visualise the body.

“We have top-of-the-range kit and several of our academics are experts in this field,” says Machin. “The students love it, and it gives them a chance to practise things in the virtual world before they go on placement.” Findley agrees, saying “students can get the best out of their placements because they’re more confident about their capabilities.”

The university is home to one of just five national competence testing centres, which all overseas nurses, midwives and nursing associates must pass before they can be registered to practise in the UK. The centre recently doubled in size to meet growing demand and can now offer thousands of exam places each year.

Northumbria also works in partnership with other universities, including medical students from over the road at Newcastle University, to create a simulated clinical interprofessional working environment. This allows students to, for example, act as different professionals to practise making decisions together as a team, as they would when they qualify.

Reaching out to young people directly to attract them on to programmes is another initiative that is proving successful. Northumbria has partnered with a local academy sixth form to support their development of a T-level course to encourage more young people to consider the vast range of health-related careers available. The university has supported the school team with the development of teaching materials which give pupils a taste of what it’s like to work in a healthcare setting.

Two years post-qualification is the peak time for nurses to leave the profession, so universities such as Northumbria are working hard to preempt this by making students aware of the range of opportunities across the NHS and the varied career paths available to them.

In the next 10-15 years it is estimated that almost 15% of the adult working age population in England will be working in the health and social care sector, says Radford. “Retaining people is critical. Trained colleagues have a huge amount of experience delivering services in innovative ways, and they’re also providing essential supervision, support, advice and guidance for those in the early stages of their career.”

Continuing professional development programmes can help people find routes into new areas of interest or newly emerging roles, with Northumbria offering courses in areas such as non-medical prescribing, immunisation, or general practice nursing, while others may choose to follow leadership or management routes.

As someone who has been in the profession since 1985, Findley feels fortunate to have progressed in her career and to have had many different jobs throughout, thanks to her ongoing commitment to develop her skills in new areas. “There are so many different routes open to you when you work in the health sector,” she says. “Universities are able to help people navigate their way through that career path and show them the options.”

Find out more about how Northumbria University is driving change and inspiring potential