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The right numbers at the right time

Moves to increase university nursing enrolments is being questioned due to a shortage of clinical placements.

The looming retirement of 'baby boomer' nurses will place unprecedented pressure on Australia's health workforce over the coming years, but contention surrounds how best to prepare for the predicted exodus.

In particular any move to increase university nursing enrolments is being questioned in light of clinical placements already being hard to come by and reports of graduates not being able to find employment.

However, while any increase in the number of undergraduates needs to be monitored to make sure supply doesn't overtake demand, there will soon be a time when large numbers of nurses will be needed to fill the inevitable vacancies. For universities, this means careful planning and timing is key, says Jill White, dean of nursing at the University of Sydney.

"Nursing is going to have an enormous shortage if we don't have the right numbers at the right time," White told Nursing Review.

"But when it comes to increasing enrolments there has to be an alignment between the number of students, available jobs and availability of clinical placements. Any increase has to be done in a timely manner."

For Queensland, that time was now, said Queensland Nursing Union secretary Beth Mohle. Citing Queensland Health figures that the state will need an extra 5500 nurses and midwives over the next six years, Mohle told Nursing Review that nurses and midwives were needed on the ground now.

The unions concerns is that future nurses were being sent mixed signals, as while there is a workforce shortage some graduates weren't able to find employment, said Mohle.

"Queensland Health has reported that they have limited vacancies, resulting in graduates missing out on employment altogether or being employed on a temporary basis only."

"This is particularly concerning given the increase in nursing places in universities."

Mohle said one reason for the lack of available positions was nurses planning to retire put it off due the GFC. On the issue of clinical placements, White - who is also chair of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Council - said it was high time that universities looked beyond the hospital setting.

"Hospitals are becoming sites of increased acute care, which is not necessarily the best environment to place students or graduate nurses. It certainly has its place, but it shouldn't be considered as the only place," she said.

"Private facilities can be a source for placements and graduate jobs, and community facilities must be."

An article that appeared in The Australian last month looking at the impact uncapped university places, to be introduced from 2012, would have on placements and jobs quoted White as saying nursing was likely to attract large enrolments under the system and that "we don't want to get out of kilter by opening the floodgates too early."

While standing by her comments that monitoring of numbers was needed, White said there was a place for the Sydney Nursing School's new Bachelor of Nursing (Advanced Studies) degree, to be introduced next year. Describing it as a degree for "bright students", White said it was unashamedly targeted to students with a high ATAR, with a minimum score of 80 required for entry.

"This is in no way a criticism of other university nursing programs, but many have a low ATAR requirement. Our new degree is for the higher achieving student," White said.

According to the University's website, the degree is "designed for career-minded students" with a focus on leadership, evidence-based practice and international health. White said there would also be a strong research focus. It is a degree, she said, targeted at the professions future leaders.

"Introducing this program is a pre-emptive strike. We understand the need that is coming and by starting next year, it is timed with the retirement of the baby boomers." The program is subject to accreditation by the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Accreditation Council

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