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The future of nurse education? Studying with the OU

Dr Wendy McInallyAuthor: 

Dr Wendy McInally is a Senior Lecturer in Children & Young People's Nursing at the OU in Scotland

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced many challenges to all of our lives, but it has also brought widespread public recognition to the nursing profession. The Open University’s unique open-access nursing programme is helping people to join the nursing workforce across Scotland. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic reached its peak in the United Kingdom from March to May 2020, the ‘clap for carers’ campaign involved the public showing their support for health and social care workers, including nurses. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon regularly conducted COVID-19 briefings alongside the Chief Nursing Officer, Fiona McQueen, which clearly emphasised the important role played by nurses in the delivery of care. 

NHS rainbow chalk drawing While this appreciation and recognition of nurses is welcome, the nursing profession in the UK continues to face many complex challenges, such as dealing with an increase in degenerative or long-term conditions, an ageing population, and the need to move the emphasis from critical to community care. 

Despite this, recent figures reveal that the number of students across Scotland joining nursing programmes has increased by 12% and at the OU in Scotland we continue to recruit to the number of nursing student places commissioned by the Scottish Government. 

Although Scotland is a relatively small country, it has a variety of population profiles, from densely populated urban areas, to remote, sparsely populated and relatively inaccessible areas, which demand different approaches to healthcare provision. In considering this, flexibility in learning opportunities which emphasise student choice have long been considered the key to enhancing nurse education.

The OU offers this flexibility as its students can study at any time, in any place. Also, the OU is currently the only provider of Nursing Midwifery Council approved nursing programmes in all four fields of practice: adult, mental health, learning disability, and children and young people.

Helen Kafantari Maciver at Western Isles Hospital. Photo by Leila Angus.Healthcare support workers make up 28% of the nursing and midwifery workforce in NHS Scotland. This means there are over 19,000 skilled staff in Scotland with the potential to be qualified nurses. There is no minimum education qualification requirement to be a healthcare support worker, so many of them lack the qualifications required for most pre-registration nursing programmes. 

However, the OU’s open access ethos means that the university is open to everyone, regardless of qualifications or location. No qualifications are required for most OU courses. 

It is estimated that as many as 1 in 4 student nurses leave before the end of their nursing programme citing finances and lack of understanding of what studying for a nursing degree may entail.  While studying with the OU, nursing students can remain in employment and ‘earn as they learn’ and employers can retain their workforce. 

The full OU nursing course fees are paid by the Scottish Government, with additional finance to release Health Care Support Workers for learning experiences in a variety of different practice settings.

The success and value of this approach are best summarised in the words of this OU student:
“When I started my journey with The Open University I was very anxious but was given great support by my mentor.  It has been hard work, but with the OU I have been able to fit my studying around my family and work. I have now been accepted onto the Pre-Registration Nursing Programme Level 2 and look forward to the challenge ahead.” 

It is often difficult to articulate the value of nursing, what nurses do, where they work and their impact, but their contribution to the COVID-19 pandemic has shed vital light on their profession. The OU will continue to ensure nurses have the right preparation and ongoing support to deliver the population demands wherever they are based in Scotland, and that nurses are fit for purpose for today, tomorrow, and beyond.  

There is more information about the OU’s Future Nurse programme on our health and social care webpage

This blog is an edited version of a co-authored paper published in the British Journal of Nursing

Pictured: Helen Kafantari Maciver, former healthcare assistant now an Emergency Department Nurse at Western Isles Hospital thanks to her OU nursing degree.  

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