No fix without student nurses

Raising the bar on nursing

The image of the nursing profession is being devalued by inadequate resourcing and heavy workloads caused by a chronic nursing shortage. In the first of a series examining the status of the nursing profession, The Lamp tackles nursing education and what’s needed to help fix the nursing crisis.

No fix without student nurses

It’s hard to fix nursing shortages when the federal government is underfunding nursing education.

The greatest pressure on nurses is heavy workloads caused by a severe nursing shortage. Yet the severe shortage of nurses in Australia is likely to worsen as nearly half of the profession, who are aged over 45, retire in the next 10-15 years.

If we desperately need new nurses moving into the system, why did Australian universities turn away thousands of qualified applicants for nursing courses this year? This year 2,716 potential students were turned away from nursing courses.

NSWNA Assistant General Secretary Judith Kiejda said, ‘We currently have a shortage of 1,750 nurses in public hospitals, not counting shortages in the private sector. It’s ridiculous to have such a nursing shortage and be turning potential students away.’

The federal government is largely to blame by historically underfunding nursing education.

Despite some measures by the government to address the shortfall in undergraduate nursing places, there continues to be a shortfall of around 800 undergraduate nursing places each year – based on a report by the government’s own Australian Health Workforce

Advisory Committee projecting that around 12,000 graduate nurses need to be entering the workforce in 2006 to meet current shortages.

Another problem stems from the federal government’s decision to cap the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) fees for nursing and teaching courses to attract students to these high-demand sectors. Nursing and teaching have been recognised as national priority areas so have been placed in the Band 1 of HECS, capping students’ contributions to $3680 per year. Meanwhile HECS fees for other courses have increased by up to 30% since 2003.

‘The Association very much supports the move by the government to identify nursing as a national priority and capping HECS fees for nursing will go a long way to attracting new students to this area,’ said Judith,

‘However, nursing courses are expensive to run and the low HECS fees mean universities don’t make money on undergraduate nursing courses. Current government policy doesn’t provide scope for universities to offset these costs, so they want to cut back on undergraduate nursing,’ she said.

The University of Sydney shut its doors on undergraduate nursing last year despite campaigning and rallies by the NSWNA and students to try and persuade the University Senate to change its mind. Existing undergraduate nursing students will be able to complete their nursing degrees at Sydney University.

‘Decisions about nursing education should not be determined by the bottom line. This devalues the profession and is not how you deal effectively with a national problem such as the nurse shortage,’ said Judith.

She is also concerned that once one high-profile university decides to shut its doors on undergraduate nursing, others may follow suit, further reducing the supply of nurses.

Government funding is the fix
In recognising nursing and teaching courses as national priority areas, a two-fold response is required from the federal government. The NSWNA agrees that HECS fees should be significantly reduced, if not abolished, for nursing courses. But the government needs to offset this by increasing its proportion of the funding of nursing places to attract students and make nursing courses viable for universities.

More funding also needed for specialist and postgraduate nursing courses
One of the greatest areas of nursing shortage is in specialist areas such as intensive care, aged care midwifery and mental health (to just name a few). In order to address the shortage of specialist nurses, the NSWNA is pushing the government to increase its funding of postgraduate nursing places and reduce HECS fees for postgraduate nursing courses.

Most postgraduate nursing courses are full fee paying which acts as a great deterrent for nurses who wish to gain specialist knowledge and further their careers.

For example, the Australian Labor Party in their pre-election policy Aim Higher: Learning, training and better jobs for more Australians, calculated that ‘under the Howard Government’s proposed university changes, a student who wants to study to become a midwife could face a student debt of $37,800 including $15,400 in HECS fees, $8,400 in full fees and $4,300 interest over and above the cost of living.