Nursing in the UK is a booming profession. No wonder, when the job is so fulfilling, says Nick Jackson

The image of the nurse as doctor's dutiful handmaiden now seems as outdated as the Carry On films she was once such a staple of. With advanced practitioners and nurse prescribers licensed to give prescriptions and take a more active role in care, there has been a shift in nurses' roles in the last few years.

It's a change that has been reflected in the move of nursing training from the old colleges to the universities. Nursing training has been on offer at a few universities since the late Sixties but only widely taken up in the Nineties. Now all nurses are taught at university, and it's a boom subject. In a year when student numbers dropped across the board, nursing numbers have surged ahead, up 15 per cent.

There are two main ways to become a registered nurse in England: via a diploma and via a degree. Both are three-year university courses. The degree is for the more bookish, with tougher entry requirements and more responsibility for your own study rewarded with a higher level of analysis. But it will also be more expensive. Diploma students receive a non-means-tested bursary, degree students get a means-tested bursary.

Whether you take the diploma or a degree you'll go on to the same jobs afterwards, says Sue Howard, education adviser at the Royal College of Nursing. As important as paper qualifications is your caring spirit. "It's not just about being able to write an essay but about the level of care you're able to provide the patient," says Howard. "Most of all you've got to have an interest in people, what makes them tick, and what their needs are."

That is one of things drawing people into nursing from the paper-mill of the office. Seraphim Patel, 30, left a career in marketing at ITN and Carlton to go back to university to study nursing. "In companies it's all about vanity and ego, about hitting targets," he says. "Nursing is the opposite. It's hard work, but I'm so satisfied and content. I feel so complete, it's wonderful." Patel graduated from Thames Valley University last month, and is now applying to work in oncology at the Royal Marsden, providing palliative care for terminal cancer patients. For Patel, palliative care - looking after rather than curing patients - is the most satisfying work. He remembers caring for one patient the night she died. "It was so rewarding to know I'd done something for her on that night," he says.

Janet Ganney, 20, was also looking for something more than the nine-to-five. "I wanted a career, not just a job," she says. She became interested in nursing when she did work experience at school. She is now in her second year of a nursing degree at South Bank University, specialising in child nursing. "I like working with children," she says. "You feel like you can help their development, play with them, be more involved in their care." Just as important as the satisfaction of being able to help for Ganney is the interest of the work. "You work with such a variety of people," she says. "You learn from parents, from children, from healthcare professionals. Every day is different, you're always learning."

More you can say than about a lot of jobs. Even the razzmatazz of dress, drill, and deployment can get dull, according to Jean Paul de Wert. After 11 years in the Royal Air Force, he had had enough. "It was just too much of the same sort of thing," says De Wert, 36, now a second-year student at Middlesex University. "I wanted some different challenges so I decided to go for nursing." Nursing is as much of a buzz as anything in the forces. "A&E is about the adrenalin," he says. "No patient that comes in is the same. You see everything from heart attacks to car accidents. You get the whole kit and caboodle." And for anyone who thinks that nursing is not for boys, there's nothing feminine about De Wert's fascination with some of the treatments nurses use on wounds, including larval therapy (using maggots to clean an infected wound).

"Everyone sees nursing as wiping bums and feeding patients, but there are more things that you're able to do," says De Wert. "It's what you want to make out of it. If you want to do more interesting things you get to do them."