Nurses used to be seen as playing second fiddle to the authority of doctors, but a new breed of postgraduates is changing that image. And with the number of flexible courses on offer at British universities, it's never been easier to trade in your humdrum job for something infinitely more rewarding.
In fact, it's unusual for anyone who wants to enter this field at a decent level without some sort of postgraduate qualification.
"You wouldn't get a post as a nurse consultant now without a Masters degree," says Richard Hogston, dean of health at Leeds Metropolitan University, whose nursing courses range from postgraduate diplomas to MScs. "Individual nurses are doing it to advance their careers, and we have to ensure that they're getting the theory that underpins the practice."
Margaret Edwards, head of postgraduate taught programmes at the Florence Nightingale school of nursing and midwifery at King's College London, says that nurses are increasingly expected to have strong academic backgrounds if they want to get to the top. "The ante is definitely being upped. We're seeing students coming through who are having to take doctorates to get the jobs they want. It reflects the changing role of nursing, in which there has to be more intellectual involvement. If you're going to be prescribing medication, for instance, a traditional and generalised qualification won't be enough."
Postgraduate nursing courses attract a variety of students, ranging in age anywhere between 22 and 60. Some arrive fresh from university; others are looking for a career change. There's also been an influx of international students in recent times: on the MSc in advanced nursing practice at the University of Manchester, for example, overseas participants make up half the intake.
Another change has been the way in which courses are delivered. Most degrees in advanced nursing practice still require the usual combination of lectures and hands-on involvement, however, many institutions have developed distance-learning courses. These can be taught either partially or entirely over the internet, to suit students who need to keep their jobs to fund their studies: many of them will already be experienced nurses who want to specialise to improve their prospects.
"Our students often have jobs, families and mortgages," says Davina Porock, professor of nursing practice at the University of Nottingham, which offers online modules in nursing theory and research. "And when people's jobs are under threat, as is the case at the moment in the NHS, they're unlikely to be able to waltz off to attend a course – they have to be there. Previously, we had a student who worked for 20 days straight, because she was using her days off to attend lectures."
Another institution that has embraced online nursing education is Napier in Edinburgh. Six weeks ago, the school of nursing, midwifery and social care launched 36 new internet modules as part of a project part-funded by the European Social Fund. The modules are highly specialised, and are aimed at busy nurses who don't have the time or money to attend regular lectures.
"The idea of teaching just a Masters in nursing is pretty outdated," says Morag Prowse, dean of health, life and social sciences at Napier. "There's been a major shift in nursing roles over the past 10 years, and it's now all about multidisciplinary courses. We think that these online modules offer the kind of education that's really meeting the needs of nurses – this is the way that people connect and learn nowadays."
Learning from home is suitable for some aspects of nursing, but not all. Although theoretical, textbook-based modules can be delivered in this way, when it comes to the more refined aspects of clinical nursing practice, a PC is no substitute for a patient.
"We can use computers for some set pieces, but at the end of the day we need people who are able to perform these procedures," says Porock. "They have to be able to see someone else doing it first, and you just can't teach that online."Reuse content