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Merger gives colleges stronger voice

Next year's unification of RCNA and the College of Nursing has been warmly received as a timely development for the profession. By Linda Belardi

The profession has welcomed the merger of Australia’s two national peak professional bodies as a chance to boost the political clout and influence of nursing.

Professor Jill White, dean of nursing at the University of Sydney, said the merger of the Royal College of Nursing Australia (RCNA) and the College of Nursing, was a timely and much needed opportunity to raise the public profile of the profession.

Members of both colleges voted overwhelmingly in favour of unification at extraordinary general meetings held simultaneously on November 31.

“We can’t afford to not speak with a loud and considered single voice,” White told Nursing Review.

“I’ve been quite concerned that nursing hasn’t had a stronger voice both publicly and with government. We haven’t necessarily been seen to put a clear and evidence-based position on policy discussions in healthcare generally and in nursing. This provides an opportunity for us to do so.”

Commonwealth Chief Nurse and former RCNA chief executive Rosemary Bryant said the merger was long overdue. “Consolidation of the not inconsiderable resources of both organisations will mean an enhanced ability for professional advocacy. This merger will enable nursing to speak with a more united voice in conjunction with other peak nursing and midwifery organisations,” she said.

The present RCNA chief executive, Debra Cerasa, said the united body would strengthen the professional voice of nursing by tapping into the expertise of an expanded membership base. “Both the College of Nursing and RCNA represent diverse professional aspects of nursing and as a strengthened entity it will enhance further the ability to have the voice of nursing heard.”

As the largest section of the health workforce, nurses had to be vocal participants in health reform and policy development, said Cerasa.

The College of Nursing chief executive, Tracey Osmond, said the new college would amalgamate the postgraduate education services of the College of Nursing with the policy and lobbying functions of the RCNA.

“The merger represents a fruitful marriage of the strengths of both organisations, which are very complementary,” said Osmond. Currently the two colleges only share 357 members. She said the implementation of federal health reform and national registration necessitated a strong national voice for nursing and a shift away from state-based representation.

Cerasa added the new college would also expand and improve services and help reduce the college’s reliance on membership as a source of income. “With the ongoing challenge of recruiting and retaining membership, member-based associations have had to be much more business savvy than they have been in the past,” she said.

A transitional implementation committee will now be set up to manage the unification process until the two colleges formally roll into one on July 1. Until then, the two bodies will continue to operate as independent colleges.

Before the unification date, a transitional board of directors made up of six directors from the RCNA and six from the College of Nursing will settle on the new college’s name, logo and branding and appoint a new CEO.

The college’s national office will continue to be based in Canberra for political access and lobbying; while the College of Nursing’s Sydney facility will remain a base for the new entity’s education and professional development activities.

However, White said she held some reservations about retaining current board members throughout the transition period at a time when a fresh and reinvigorated voice was needed most.

“Having opportunities for new voices will be really important and so the choice of CEO is going to be absolutely critical.”

White said college members and fellows had to play their part to ensure the new entity would become an influential professional body.

Osmond said the new entity would be able to take the lead on urgent professional issues in the new year and beyond, such as developing a national professional career structure for nurses.

Both colleges were established in 1949. A planned merger of the two national not-for-profits in 2000 was unsuccessful but regained momentum in the past three years.

In September 2008, the RCNA and the College of Nursing signed a memorandum of co-operation to increase collaboration, which was renewed in 2010. Board directors of both colleges voted unanimously in support of a merger on July 1, following a process of legal and financial due diligence.

Both CEOs said they were appointed to the colleges with the strong intention of working towards unification from the outset and would not take on a management role in the new body.

Cerasa said the mission and strategic visions of the two organisations were well-aligned. “The goal of the new organisation will still be about being the peak professional organisation representing nursing. It will be about developing and delivering best practice in continuing professional development. We envisage a unified college will be an expansion and an opportunity to continue to improve on what we’re already doing.”

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