Exclusive: new Council of Deans of Health chair talks to Nursing Standard

This is the most turbulent time in education I can remember, says new Council of Deans of Health chair Brian Webster-Henderson.

This is the most turbulent time in education I can remember, says new Council of Deans of Health chair Brian Webster-Henderson

The universities' voice needs to be heard, says Professor Brian Webster-Henderson

With Brexit, new roles and routes into nursing, changes to the student bursary in England, and draft standards for nursing education, there is a lot happening that will affect nursing schools.

Brian Webster-Henderson, the new chair of the Council of Deans of Health (CODH) and Edinburgh Napier Univerisity’s dean of learning and teaching, says: ‘I don’t think I have known such a time. There is plenty of change going on and the agenda and landscape we are facing in policy and financial terms are really changing more than ever before.’

Professor Webster-Henderson was previously vice-chair of the CODH, which represents the UK university faculties that are engaged in education and research for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals, and convener of CODH Scotland. He takes over from Professor Dame Jessica Corner.

Diverse career

Professor Webster-Henderson became a mental health nurse after seeing the care his brother received. He had initially planned to become a social worker, but left school after his mother died, without the necessary qualifications. He worked for a number of years with patients who had alcohol and drug addictions, before converting to adult nursing, and working in emergency medicine and gastroenterology. He then moved into academia, where he has spent half of his 36-year nursing career. Since the move to academia, he has focused on teaching and curriculum development and design, ensuring that a student-centred and student-focused perspective is maintained.

After beginning his career in Scotland, he worked in Hampshire for more than 20 years, and while there took his first degree – in politics. He then took a master's course in advanced healthcare practice and a master's in education, followed by a doctorate. He reflects that the politics degree, during which he focused on the NHS, was probably the most useful of his degrees.

‘I have done all my degrees part-time while I was working full-time,’ he says. ‘I have never been to university as a full-time student. It was a long haul.’

Professor Webster-Henderson headed back to Scotland in 2009 to work at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, before moving to his current post in Edinburgh in 2013.

A body for the whole UK

He says the CODH has to address issues differently in the four UK countries, because the four health and education sectors are increasingly divergent. ‘I am committed to making sure we are a four-nation organisation,’ he says.

Like most sectors, universities are worried about the potential effect of Brexit on EU staff, loss of EU research funding and reduced mobility of students. ‘We are concerned about Brexit and we are not really sure what it means,’ he says. ‘We will be watching closely. In universities, many of our staff come from Europe and this can be quite a high percentage. It could have a negative impact on our research and ability to deliver programmes.’

The CODH will increasingly focus on working internationally to secure strong higher education and research cooperation worldwide post-Brexit.

Welcome changes

The NMC is currently consulting on draft standards for pre-registration nursing education that all universities will have to use for their curricula. There is a focus on boosting mental health skills across all branches of practice, and physical knowledge in mental health nursing.

‘We welcome these new standards and they will help us as a profession start to change the shape and scope of nursing practice in the UK,’ the professor says.

While the NHS busary has been scrapped for nursing courses in England, it is still in place in the rest of the UK. Professor Webster-Henderson says it is too soon to see the effects of the loss of the bursary on nursing courses in England, despite concerns that the number of applicants has dropped sharply. While the numbers applying for the first intake without the bursary this September appear to be down, he points out more intakes need to take place before a definitive picture emerges.

The RCN campaigned strongly against the bursary's abolition, and was backed by the CODH. The organisation would not necessarily take the same approach, were the bursary threatened in the rest of the UK, because it would depend on the funding situation locally, Professor Webster-Henderson says.

Nursing associates

When it comes to the new nursing associate role in England, Prof Webster-Henderson says the CODH welcomes diversity in the routes into the profession. He adds: ‘But that shouldn’t be at the expense of the graduate nurse and it shouldn’t be at the expense of universities trying to increase workforce numbers.’

He is keen that the CODH be heard when it comes to regulation and the future of the UK nursing workforce. The regulation of the nursing associate role could be problematic, he says, because it is not known what will happen to nursing associates who move to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, where the role is not recognised.

The CODH needs to ensure its voice is heard to influence change for universities, he says.  

‘In times of uncertainty, we can take that in two ways,’ he says. ‘Become overwhelmed and feel burdened, or rise to opportunities and influence the agenda and the way we want things to go. It is time for us as a council to get our voice heard even more strongly than it has been.’

Erin Dean is a freelance health journalist



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