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Enrolments ‘capped’ by lack of clinical places

Universities have held back student growth in the new demand-driven system, Annabel McGilvray reports.

Despite strong demand and new uncapped enrolments, many of Australia’s nursing and midwifery schools have limited their 2012 student intakes due to continuing clinical placement uncertainty.

As students returned to campuses around the country this month, universities began to take stock of the numbers under the new demand-driven enrolment system.

The new system allows the enrolment of as many Commonwealth-supported nursing and midwifery students as apply and can meet selection criteria. But rather than increasing numbers to meet demand as the new system allows, many nursing schools have limited growth.

“There were all these theories about massive intakes, but I haven’t heard that yet,” said Council of Deans of Nursing and Midwifery chair Professor Patrick Crookes.

Crookes, who heads the Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Wollongong, said while final enrolment figures would not be confirmed until the first semester census, it appeared student growth would be between 2 and 3 per cent.

“That’s nothing to do with the uncapping, that’s really to do with the planned growth that we’ve had as a university,” he said.

Crookes said difficulties in providing sufficient clinical placements remained the main restriction on any increases in nursing student numbers.

At the University of Queensland, there were twice as many applications than the School of Nursing and Midwifery was able to provide, but numbers had increased by a little more than 10 per cent to 200, in keeping with planned growth.

“I can only ever offer the numbers that I’ve got clinical places for – so I never over-offer beyond what I’ve negotiated with my clinical partners,” said Professor Catherine Turner, head of the UQ School of Nursing and Midwifery. “I went out to all of them and asked and despite the demand, we just can’t get the clinical places to offer more.”

The Australian Catholic University had tried to overcome this by opening a new clinical school closely linked to Canberra’s Calvary Hospital. This had allowed it to accommodate what ACU’s new head of nursing, Professor Mary Courtney described as a “large” increase in student numbers.

“The formalisation of a clinical school arrangement has been a natural evolution of the close collaboration between ACU and Calgary. We’re also going to be able to offer our classes on-site at Calgary. It’s something like going back to the future,” Courtney said.

In one example, the flexibility of the new uncapped enrolments, together with the extra training places, enabled ACU to meet unexpected demand for its new dual nursing/paramedics degree.

There were 80 applications for a planned 40 positions, but all were accepted.

Staff numbers had been increased to cater for the increased numbers, said Courtney.

Unlike in other disciplines, strong interest from prospective students had meant nursing entrance scores were not significantly affected by the shift to the demand-driven system.

Healthy demand meant ACU did not have to reduce the already-low Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) of 59 for the ACU Bachelor of Nursing to admit more students.

At Deakin University in Melbourne, the entrance score for nursing fell marginally from 77 to 76.1 to allow equivalent full-time student numbers to increase by 17 per cent for 2012.

However School of Nursing and Midwifery head Professor Maxine Duke said it was a marginal change.

“We didn’t take enormous amounts, just a few more here and there. We could drop to 70 and still be getting a good-quality student and we’d get hundreds more students, but we haven’t done that,” she said.

“The demand’s there, but we can’t service the demand in clinical placements.”

Alongside the continuing bottleneck posed by clinical placements, there was growing concern among heads of school about poorer employment outcomes for graduates.

In 2011, for the first time, the University of Queensland did not reach its previously exceptional almost 100 per cent graduate employment outcome, while Duke said Deakin’s employment responses had also been weakening for the first time.

The school heads said it was something they would track when setting future enrolment targets.

“Ultimately, it’s important to us all that our graduates get employed,” Duke said.

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