Northern Lights: Sheffield Hallam is leading the way in delivering health and social care

One of the things that first attracted me to Sheffield Hallam was the university’s commitment to the region. It is proudly a university of its place.
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NHS logo

This is evident right across the university, but nowhere more so than in the crucial role we play in training the next generation of the healthcare workforce.

We are one of the largest healthcare education and training providers in the country. We currently have more than 6,300 students on health and social care courses at Sheffield Hallam – making up almost 20 per cent of our student population. More than half are from the Yorkshire and Humber region and 60 per cent are mature learners.

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Over 90% of these students will go on to join the regional NHS workforce, supporting the health and wellbeing of our communities.

Professor Liz MossopProfessor Liz Mossop
Professor Liz Mossop

Yet despite universities like Sheffield Hallam training thousands of new healthcare professionals every year, the NHS is suffering significant staffing challenges.

In March 2023, there were at least 112,000 vacancies across the health workforce. International comparisons indicate that the UK now sits below the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average for doctors per head of population. It also has significantly fewer nurses per head of population than OECD equivalent countries such as Norway, Switzerland, Germany or Australia.

The Government’s NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, published last year, is focused on addressing these challenges. The plan sets out an ambitious vision - many more staff, trained closer to the communities they serve, working in more diverse, multidisciplinary teams, to deliver patient-centred care using the latest technology.

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Efforts to address the shortfall in workforce numbers are focused on the expansion of training, with targets doubling medical school places from 7,500 to 15,000 students per year (by 2031) and increasing nursing, midwifery and allied health training places by 80% to 72,4001 (by 2031).

The Workforce Plan is welcome, but there are mounting concerns that its ambitious targets will be missed. There is an obvious need for extensive collaboration between government, health educators and NHS trusts if the UK is to secure the workforce required to meet the healthcare needs of a growing, ageing population.

Last month I discussed these challenges with colleagues and partners from across Yorkshire’s universities and NHS trusts at the launch of the YHealth for Growth partners’ White Paper outlining the urgent need for action to address widening health and economic inequalities. A coalition of university groups also called on the government to urgently convene a new ministerial taskforce to address the current challenge in meeting Workforce Plan targets – something I am in full support of.

Universities are uniquely placed to drive more evidence-based policy making around the health education agenda. We need to work closely with government and the NHS to ensure a more comprehensive vision for expanding and developing health education training in the UK. Universities are also uniquely placed to support the NHS in preparing their new workforce and upskilling existing staff to make sure both are prepared for technological and digital health innovations as they are developed.

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There are some key areas to focus on. Firstly, it is vital to make a career in healthcare more appealing to prospective students. England is the only part of the UK where nursing and other healthcare students must currently pay for their own tuition and there is a clear link between end of nursing bursaries and drop in nursing applications, particularly for mature applicants.

By exploring new ways of financially supporting applicants, such as cost of living support, the career choice would be much more appealing, particularly to mature students with financial responsibilities.

Secondly, given the current pressure on the NHS, we need to take a more innovative approach to training, and invest in new facilities and technologies to support clinical placements. At Sheffield Hallam, we have invested in our facilities to enable our students to be trained using cutting edge technology, such as in our new simulated ward. This is helping prepare our students for their placements, giving them opportunities to work through complex situations ahead of entering clinical settings, thereby reducing pressure on our NHS partners training students on the ground.

Thirdly, we need to ensure learners interested in healthcare careers are aware of the different post-16 study routes open to them through both further and higher education providers.

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Sheffield Hallam is leading the way in delivering health and social care degree apprenticeships and was the first university in the country to offer degree apprenticeships in physiotherapy and medical sonography. Degree apprenticeships are an alternative earn and learn route to a degree qualification. They combine working with studying part-time at a university. Apprentices are employed throughout the programme and spend part of their time at university and the rest with their employer.

As well as offering an alternative route into a healthcare profession, our health and social care degree apprenticeships are enabling current NHS employees to advance their career, supporting the development of a more highly skilled workforce.

The expansion of apprenticeships and other routes into health careers will be critical in meeting the government’s ambitious Workforce Plan targets. This will however require better support for NHS trusts both to release staff for training and to support students, as well as a more comprehensive long-term plan to develop the pipeline of academics and researchers needed to deliver training.

The NHS is still a great source of national pride, but most people understand drastic action needs to be taken to ensure it is fit for purpose for the future. We know there isn’t a quick fix, but we are committed to working with the NHS and the Government to develop solutions to address the challenges both at a regional and national level.

And that to me is a clear example of a university delivering for its communities.