The Government’s ambitious plans to strengthen the NHS can only be achieved if significant changes are made to healthcare education and training now, warns Universities UK (UUK).
The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan (LTWP) was published by the UK Government in June this year, with the aim of addressing NHS staffing shortages across three key pillars: train, retain and reform. With opposition parties also signalling a commitment to invest in healthcare professionals over the coming years, now is a pivotal moment to secure the future of the NHS in England. Concern about the NHS is now the public’s second biggest worry according to recent Ipsos research, while research also shows people’s top priorities for the health service are expanding and supporting the NHS workforce.
The plan’s success however, hinges on a joint endeavour between education and healthcare providers, with universities both educating the next generation of healthcare professionals, and driving innovation that can improve health outcomes. Universities in Yorkshire and the Humber are already contributing towards the delivery of the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan (LTWP) with innovative research and training well underway.
Professor Dave Petley, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Hull, said: “Universities are critical not only in helping provide a talent pipeline to the NHS, but also in helping to carry out world-leading research, tackling chronic conditions and health inequalities – we fully support the recommendations made by UUK to transform healthcare education in this country.
“At the University of Hull, we are immensely proud of our healthcare courses. This summer nearly 400 nurses, and other allied health students such as midwives and paramedics, went out into the workforce. Joined by 160 Hull York Medical School graduates, these students are testimony to the fact our University, and many others, are developing skilled, knowledgeable and compassionate healthcare professionals.
UUK says a number of challenges still need to be overcome if the LTWP is to meet its objectives and prevent the talent pipeline from drying up. This includes a need for higher education to expand health education capacity, and for a culture shift to take place within the NHS to place more value on students and educators.
The NHS workforce plan aims to ramp up training, double medical school spots and increase nursing and midwifery training places by 80%.
With 112,000 vacancies across the health workforce, UUK highlights the need for a plan for healthcare education and training to turn ambitions into reality.
UUK is setting out its five-point plan to meet the objectives of the LTWP and support future and existing talent, including in Yorkshire and the Humber:
Boosting student recruitment
- With applications to nursing, midwifery and allied health professional (AHP) courses declining, UUK is calling on government for a major national recruitment campaign produced in partnership with universities, colleges, schools and the NHS.
Increasing the numbers of educators
- Shortages in clinical academic and teaching staff is a limiting factor for expansion. Currently 50% of healthcare educators are over 50 years old. An urgent review is needed of educator roles and careers, to attract different kinds of staff into roles. A cultural shift is also needed within the NHS towards students and educators to make space for them and ensure they feel valued.
Investing in new facilities and infrastructure including new technologies
- Expanding capacity to boost learner numbers will require extending university and college facilities as well as opening new schools. This means additional teaching space, flexible space and exam facilities. There are opportunities to extend capacity through learning technology such as immersive environments, simulation and robotics, all of which requires capital investment.
Increasing placement capacity
- The availability, quality and distribution of placements must continue to be a focus for government, the NHS and universities and colleges. Closer working between the NHS in England and universities is required to diversify placement capacity in community settings such as care homes and schools, as well as increasing hospital placements.
Improving learner experience and reducing attrition.
- Many health courses experience high rates of attrition that continue into early careers. Common factors include cost of living pressures and travel and accommodation expenses. Additional wellbeing and mental health support, more regular check-ins, better coaching and mentoring support is necessary. Financial support should be inflation linked and students from low-income families should receive more help.
Professor Alistair Fitt, Universities UK’s health policy lead, and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, said: “With political consensus on the need to significantly increase the number of healthcare professionals over the coming years, now is a pivotal moment to protect the future of the NHS in England.
“For the government’s ambitions for our national health service to come to fruition requires a step change in healthcare education.”
Higher education’s role in the delivery of the LTWP includes innovative approaches to education and training to identify future skills gaps, recruiting from more diverse communities, introducing new routes into the profession, new clinical roles and advances in technology.
Boosting the number of staff employed by the NHS in England from approximately 1.5 million in 2022 to around 2.4 million in 2036–37 is also a key ambition. By 2036-37, the objective is that almost half (49%) of public sector workers will work for the NHS, comprising one in 11 (9%) of all workers in England, compared with one in 17 (6%) in 2021–22.
To develop a well-staffed and efficient NHS, the UK Government must work closely with universities to fund the plan over the next 15 years, spanning both general elections and spending reviews.