Analysis

Nursing students: here’s how your training will look in the new academic year

Post-pandemic peak, universities plan to continue with initiatives such as online lessons and skills labs

The first peak may be over, but universities plan to continue with pandemic initiatives such as online lessons and skills labs

  • During the pandemic, universities acted quickly to adapt courses as some students joined the extended register and others participated in online studies
  • As the threat of the virus continues, executive director of the Council of Deans of Health Katerina Kolyva answers questions about what students can expect in the coming academic year
  • Advice for students about maintaining well-being, and educators share their responses to the changes
Nursing students have become used to online learning during the pandemic Picture: iStock

COVID-19 has transformed nursing education in the UK, forcing universities to make rapid changes to deliver training in

The first peak may be over, but universities plan to continue with pandemic initiatives such as online lessons and skills labs

  • During the pandemic, universities acted quickly to adapt courses as some students joined the extended register and others participated in online studies
  • As the threat of the virus continues, executive director of the Council of Deans of Health Katerina Kolyva answers questions about what students can expect in the coming academic year
  • Advice for students about maintaining well-being, and educators share their responses to the changes
Nursing students have become used to online learning during the pandemic Picture: iStock

COVID-19 has transformed nursing education in the UK, forcing universities to make rapid changes to deliver training in new ways.

Emergency education standards brought in by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) in March allowed universities to provide mainly theory-based distance learning for some students, and extend clinical placements for those nearing the end of their courses.

Nurse education has had a rapid overhaul in response to COVID-19

58,550

people had applied for pre-registration nursing courses across the UK by 30 June 2020

(Source: UCAS)

Educators have embraced online technologies, such as group webinars, virtual simulations and even remote access to clinical placements for some students who were shielding.

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Although the NMC emergency standards will be stepped down in September, the prospect of social distancing remaining commonplace for the foreseeable future, and the threat of local lockdowns and a second wave all suggest there will need to be more lasting changes to nursing education.

Timeline: how the COVID-19 pandemic changed nurse education

11 March: The World Health Organization declares the virus outbreak a global pandemic and NHS England outlines plans to bring nursing students into clinical practice to support the workforce

25 March: The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) approves a range of emergency measures, including some nursing students taking on paid, extended, clinical placements for six months and first-year students potentially undertaking theoretical distance learning for the whole of their programme

7 May: The NMC announces that nursing students will not be invited to join the temporary emergency register

25 June: The NMC sets out plans to end emergency measures for students and replace theoretical distance learning with ‘blended’ learning, which allows face-to-face and online teaching, in line with social distancing rules

26 June: Health Education England (HEE) confirms that nursing students who volunteered to undertake paid placements as part of the COVID-19 response will have their contracts honoured, amid confusion over how long students will be paid for

7 July: HEE announces a new flexible online nursing degree will begin in England in January 2021, helping those with caring commitments take up courses.

Applications to nursing courses increase

The pandemic does not appear to have deterred would-be students from applying to pre-registration nursing courses. Data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) show that by the end of June, applications were up 16% in England, 12% in Scotland and 3% in Wales compared with 2019.

Katerina Kolyva is executive director of the Council of Deans of Health, which represents the UK’s university faculties engaged in education and research for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals.

Here, she answers some key questions on what new and existing nursing students can expect in the next academic year.

What are the main changes going to be for nurse education in the next academic year?

Katerina Kolyva: ‘Universities committed
to safeguarding all their students’

‘Universities are working hard to ensure the quality of nursing education is upheld in what will have to be a different learning environment,' Dr Kolyva says.

'Measures such as social distancing will mean that a blended approach to learning will be used in terms of online and face-to-face teaching. Lectures and skills labs will be held in smaller groups and there will be an increased use of simulation technology.

‘The schedule of nursing programmes may be altered to allow the theoretical and practical components of the course to take place at the most suitable time. Despite possible changes to teaching methods and timelines, the course content, skills and competencies of nursing education will not change.’

Will there be enough clinical placements and supervisors to meet demand, considering the impact of COVID-19 on services?

‘Placement capacity is an important factor in determining student places,’ says Dr Kolyva.

‘Universities remain concerned about the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on placement capacity but they are working closely with providers to find placements for students. Health Education England (HEE) is also introducing additional funding this year to increase capacity.’

How can students who may be shielding or are at higher risk from COVID-19 be reassured they won’t be disadvantaged?

Dr Kolyva says: ‘Universities are committed to safeguarding all their students and will try to ensure that no student is disadvantaged due to their personal circumstances. Students should work with their university to highlight any risks and consider possible adaptations.

‘The NMC also agreed that placement allocations must take account of public health guidelines and make appropriate risk assessments to ensure the safety of those most at risk, such as black, Asian and minority ethnic students.'

What about financial support?

Funding for students on a nursing degree in the UK varies according to what country you live in and where you are studying.

16%

increase in students applying for pre-registration nursing courses in England by 30 June 2020, compared with 2019

(Source: UCAS)

‘Financial support packages for nursing students such as maintenance loans and childcare support will continue,’ says Dr Kolyva.

‘The new training grant, confirmed to start in September 2020, will mean new and existing nursing students in England will receive a grant of at least £5,000 per year that will not be means tested and does not need to be repaid. Learning disability and mental health nursing students will receive an additional £1,000.’

Dr Kolyva explains that tuition fees in England remain in place for all students, whether the teaching will be carried out remotely or face to face.

What about mental health and pastoral support?

Dr Kolyva says that students’ mental health and well-being is a priority for universities and they have a duty of care to safeguard their students.

‘Nursing schools are especially aware that the demands of healthcare education can affect students’ mental health. Many nursing providers have initiatives to support student mental well-being, in addition to central university pastoral services.’

How would a second wave affect courses?

‘Universities will try to ensure, as much as possible, that minimal disruption is caused to nursing courses if there is a second wave,’ says Dr Kolyva.

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‘Course timetables may have to be adapted or provided in another format but universities will do everything they can to make sure students can continue their studies.’

Can people still defer starting a course or accepting a place?

‘The UCAS deadlines for 2020 were extended in light of COVID,’ she adds. Students who received their last offer on or before 13 July 2020 had until 20 July to make a decision. Some nursing courses will have places available in clearing which will be open from 6 July to 20 October.’

Peer support and keeping in touch: advice for students

Jessica Sainsbury: ‘It’s vital
that students have a sense
of belonging and support’

RCN students chair and final-year adult and mental health nursing student Jessica Sainsbury says even before COVID-19, it was easy to feel lost as a nursing student.

‘We spend 50% of our nurse education out in practice achieving our competencies all while adjusting to new settings, new teams, new patient groups, and being the "new kid on the block”,’ she says.

Then students were given the choice to change the format of their programmes during the pandemic. ‘Now more than ever, with delays in communications from our nursing leaders reaching students and those who support them, it’s vital that students have a sense of belonging and support.

‘Peer support networks are a great way to achieve this, and there are many virtual ones available. We are also seeing counselling and mental health services adapting and offering more virtual appointments – it’s okay if you’re struggling, please try and take the steps to access support available.'

What do universities say about how they are changing their courses?

Northumbria University’s nursing, midwifery and health department head Debbie Porteous says online and small classroom groups that take account of social distancing will be in operation from September.

Professor Porteus says the university has invested in technology to deliver flexible learning and will run a mix of scheduled, real-time and 24/7 accessible anytime sessions and on-campus access to the clinical skills centre, classrooms, digital hubs and library.

2,300

the number of hours of practice learning, and 2,300 hours of theory-based learning required in the course of a nursing programme

She says the university has spoken regularly with student representatives during lockdown to build their feedback into planning.

‘We know how important it is for students to meet in person to talk through and reflect on their learning experiences, therefore, we have ensured that we have built face-to-face time with their supportive personal tutor groups into our teaching plans.

'They also tell us they have enjoyed the opportunity to undertake independent learning in their own time around their other commitments.’

Safety will come first

A University of Plymouth spokesperson says its campus will be operational but safety will come first and it is following government advice to ensure a COVID-secure working and learning environment.

'If needed to enable social distancing, or individual student needs, options for remote access or online and blended learning will be available alongside the face-to-face experience.

'We know that we all may need to adapt if COVID-19 conditions change, but our priority is to offer a great teaching, learning and social experience for all our students who we look forward to being able to welcome in September.'

Coventry University school of nursing, midwifery and health senior lecturer and lead for clinical skills Nina Godson says her team has created new guidance to enable safe practical teaching to continue where essential.

This includes steps to implement social distancing measures in the simulation building, with an emphasis on the need for increased hygiene regimens and the compulsory adherence to all official guidance on personal protective equipment.

Skills labs and simulations will be conducted with small groups of students Picture: Neil O’Connor

Courses will prepare students for the challenges of COVID-19

'Essential teaching sessions are scheduled, risk-assessed and will be delivered promptly and safely to students in accordance with government advice.

'Student competence in clinical skills will be strengthened through a blended learning approach to small-group teaching, encompassing technology enhanced learning, streaming of practical skills and face-to-face clinical scenarios, offering a sense of realism.

'In turn this will effectively prepare and support students in their transition when facing the challenges posed by COVID-19 in the NHS.'

The university's mental health lead Diane Phimister adds mental health and well-being resources have been developed, including videos from healthcare students at different stages of their training talking about challenges they have experienced and overcome.

It’s about innovation in education: a nursing lecturer’s views

Josh Sharman

Josh Sharman is a lecturer in clinical skills and simulations at Middlesex University London

‘COVID-19 has forced us to deliver teaching to nursing students online, in a non-traditional way. Through these changes, I believe nursing education will drastically change for the better, as well as better meet the needs of our students.

‘As educators we’ve had to come up with innovative ways to ensure students stay engaged and continue to meet learning outcomes, without having to meet face to face. We are currently adopting an online approach to learning, with group webinar sessions, online learning modules, and virtual simulation.

‘Some teaching, such as clinical skills, may have to be taught face to face in future, and a blended learning approach helps breaks down the learning into manageable bite-sized chunks of learning, while meeting the needs of students’ different learning styles and reducing the need for face-to-face sessions.

‘I’m blown away with the level of engagement from students during online webinars. Less confident students have been emboldened to engage in sessions by typing questions or asking them through their microphones. No one student can dominate sessions in the way that can happen face to face. Many students have told me they prefer this style of teaching and they want it to continue. So do I.’

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