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The privatisation agenda will make the nursing workforce crisis worse

By Judy Lumby - posted Thursday, 15 July 2004

The Federal government's privatisation agenda has our health care system in a pincer movement. On the one hand it is privatising health care, while on the other it is privatising the programs preparing practitioners for this system.

The undergraduate nursing program at the University of Sydney, which has produced so many high-quality registered nurses, is a high-profile victim of this. With university fees no longer the icing on the cake but the cake itself, we have to ask - who will be next?

So much for our federal Minister for Education's promise last year to provide additional university places for nursing. This promise in reality was a funding of 574 nursing places in Australia - a drop in the bucket given the nation's nursing shortage.


But, of course, what we are seeing at the University of Sydney has nothing to do with quality education or ensuring a high-quality workforce. It is about revenue-raising: a continuation of the Federal government's philosophy of shifting costs to consumers. The commodification of what is the holy trinity of a civil society - health, education and social welfare - has already been shown to cause inequities and a decline in quality. The implications for education are only just emerging.

As far as our workforce is concerned, we need every graduate possible. Nursing requires highly educated, skilled professionals who are motivated to continue learning through life as new knowledge emerges. It is the largest workforce in health and many nurses now fulfil what were once seen as doctors' roles.

There is evidence that redistribution of university places causes leakage of numbers dependent on the capacity and willingness of other universities to pick them up.

We have seen such leakage since the education of nurses moved into the tertiary sector in 1984, with thousands of nursing places lost through redistribution of undergraduate nursing places - either to postgraduate nursing programs or to other more lucrative courses within the university.

When lining up the numbers of nurses graduating against workforce requirements, there are gross disparities to the tune of 40,000 registered nurses, according to the best available research in the field. And this is merely maintenance of the workforce. Demographic, technological and social changes will demand an even greater number of highly skilled and educated registered nurses than presently exists.

There is constant conflict between state and federal governments over planning and policies. While the Federal government funds tertiary education, the states have to manage the workforce numbers. And it is evident that this clash has led to a major nursing workforce crisis.


Our sophisticated health-care system demands every professional in it be educated to the highest standard possible intellectually and ethically. We have evidence of what happens when this is not ensured. We need to live in the present, not in the past. Every nursing place in our bachelor of nursing programs is precious and needs protection.

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Article edited by Betsy Fysh.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 11 June 2004.

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About the Author

Professor Judy Lumby is Executive Director of the College of Nursing.

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