Tag: University and College Union

Learning how to see: industrial action in universities and the nursing workforce

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Photo by @sarawhittam

I take the view that ‘everything is connected to everything else’, to use a phrase I recently learn is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. More on him later.

Over the past week I’ve been involved in industrial action as part of #UCUStrikesBack. What I’m not going to do in this post is to explain why university staff are currently on strike, largely because this has already been adequately covered elsewhere (for example, see here and here). Instead, I want to share some picket-line reflections linking what happens in universities with what happens in the health service. These are connections which are not being made frequently enough, including by some who should know better.

As a mental health nurse academic I am acutely aware of the perilous position occupied by my profession in the NHS, with reports from earlier in 2019 pointing to a loss of 6,000 mental health nurses in NHS England since 2009. Below is a graph, created using NHS Digital data, which starkly reveals the current situation:

MHN numbers 2019As an aside, data of this type are not published here in Wales. They should be. In any event, quite correctly much concern has been expressed about this startling decline in the workforce, with mental health nursing now singled out as a group needing particular help to improve both recruitment and retention.

Reflecting my position as a health professional academic I hold joint membership of the University and College Union (UCU) and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). The RCN, along with other health service unions like Unite and Unison, is trying to reverse the crisis facing the nursing workforce. It is campaigning on safe staffing, has published a manifesto to assist nurses wanting to interrogate prospective parliamentary candidates ahead of the December 2019 general election, and through its Fund our Future campaign is lobbying government to reverse the removal of tuition fee and living cost support for students of nursing in England.

These campaigns are important. So far, however, in its public pronouncements the RCN has failed to make the necessary connections between working conditions in universities and the present and future education of student nurses. Put simply, an adequate supply of educated, evidence-minded, person-centred nurses demands an adequate supply of secure, well-supported, fairly paid nurse educators and researchers. Nurse academics typically have career trajectories which are significantly different from those in other fields, with implications for their recruitment, retention and development. The modern norm for historians, physicists and sociologists seems to involve years of precarious, post-doctoral, employment characterised by repeated short-term contracts before landing (if ever) much sought-after full-time academic posts. In contrast, with some exceptions nurses are generally recruited into higher education by dint of their practitioner expertise, their posts linked to the servicing of courses of professional study. This was certainly how it was for me: my academic career commenced with an initial series of short-term employment contracts associated with the leading of a post-qualification course for community mental health nurses. In all universities, nurse academics can soon find themselves carrying major teaching and course management responsibilities, often for programmes and modules of study which run more than once across a single year. Demanding education and education-related workloads can squeeze out time for research, scholarship and wider engagement, in workplaces which traditionally value productivity in these areas for the purposes of career progression.

Expanding the number of nurses to fill the gaps which now exist, for which the RCN and others are rightly campaigning, requires thought and careful planning. In the run-up to the general election both are in short supply as nursing numbers become reduced to political soundbites. More student nurses must mean more nurse academics, but in any future rounds of staff recruitment potential entrants will have their eyes wide open. The erosion of university pensions relative to pensions in the NHS does nothing to encourage those contemplating the leap from health care into higher education (or, at least, into that part of the sector in which the Universities Superannuation Scheme predominates). Very reasonably, those considering future careers as nurse academics will also want to weigh up the appeal of doing work which is undoubtedly creative and rewarding with what they will hear about workloads, developmental opportunities and work/life balance.

I also learn, this week, that Leonardo da Vinci saw the making of connections as necessary in order that we might see the world as it truly is. In my working world, education, research and practice are intimately intertwined. It is disappointing that these connections are being missed by organisations which campaign on the state of nursing and the NHS, but which do not (as a minimum) also openly acknowledge the concerns that nursing and other academics have regarding the state of universities. Right now, some words of solidarity and support would not go amiss.

Strange days

2018-03-14 15.44.10Suffice to say that this has been the most peculiar of months. Large parts of the last four or five weeks have been spent on picket lines, at rallies, in community teach-outs and working to contract. I’ve joined with friends, old and new, in support of decent pensions for university staff. The Wikipedia page dedicated to the current dispute reports that the strikes are the most sustained to have ever taken place in UK higher education. A first offer to University and College Union members to end the action having been rejected, with the prospect of a further 14 more days of strikes across campuses looming a new offer has been tabled today (March 23rd). Next week will be critical, I suspect.

Elsewhere, I managed to disappear to the always-spectacular Cornwall for a week. That’s where the photograph above of the boat was taken. In the world of mental health nursing research, preparations for #MHNR2018 are now in full swing, with more information (including on abstract submission) to be found here. Our theme for this year’s conference is Place, Purpose and Politics: Re-imagining Mental Health Care, and we’ll be at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester on September 13th and 14th. Our confirmed keynote speakers are excellent in every way: Dr Eleanor LongdenProfessor Sir Robin Murray, Dr Jonathan Gadsby and Professor Sonia Johnson. The fifth keynote speaker is…

…potentially you, reader. For the second year running we’re inviting nominations to deliver the Annual Mental Health Nurse Academics UK Lecture. This is a super opportunity for a mental health nurse who has made a significant contribution to the promotion and enhancement of mental health nursing education, research, policy and/or practice to speak at a major international event. Don’t be shy!

In other news, this month I was pleased to see the publication of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Dissemination Centre’s Forward Thinking themed review of research on support for people living with severe mental illness. I was a member of the project steering group for this piece of work, and the finished product is a fine resource indeed. I commend it to all those interested in the evidence base for mental health services and interventions, and am also pleased to report that the review included many studies led by, or otherwise involving, researchers with backgrounds in mental health nursing: Safewards, the City 128 extension, SPICES, RiSC, COCAPP, COCAPP-A, RESPECT.