Despite a positive but hesitant start in the 1960s and 1970s, academic nursing in the United Kingdom (UK) seems to be in danger of losing its way. Ironically, this may be due to the recent assimilation of all nurse education into the university sector and the competing demands placed on nurses and academics by the National Health Service (NHS). Many nurses, and others involved in nurse education, appear neither to understand the purpose of universities, nor to recognize the importance of scholarship. It could be argued that the wholesale move of nursing into the higher education sector in the UK was premature; that many nurses now in universities are on unfamiliar territory without a map.
As Noel Annan (1999, p.3) cogently points out, universities exist for the ‘cultivation, training and exercise of the intellect’; they should be the cornerstones of intellectual life. As universities have developed over the centuries they have fulfilled two primary purposes: research and teaching. The former is concerned with the development of new knowledge and the latter is concerned primarily with the transmission of knowledge – usually in that order. The mission of a university could be described as the acquisition, assessment and dissemination of knowledge. In other words, knowledge needs to be acquired before it can be disseminated. Unfortunately, over the past 15 years there has been a ‘dumbing down’ of the higher education sector generally, an increasing failure to recognize the importance of scholarly activities, and a growing lack of distinction between education and training. This has been an unfortunate and perhaps unintended consequence of the drive to increase access to higher education. Training was traditionally the preserve of the further education sector (frequently in conjunction with employer in-service training such as apprenticeships), and the polytechnics – and they did it very well. However, during the 1980s employer-led apprenticeships virtually disappeared. Since 1992 there has been a four-fold increase in the number of universities, further education colleges have struggled to develop a new identity, and the polytechnics have been re-invented to become new universities. The goals of successive governments appear to have been to lengthen the period of most young people’s economic dependency by extending their formal education, and increasing the numbers going to university. Hence, the boundaries between education and training have become ever more blurred. Young people who once would have been in a variety of training environments have found themselves positively encouraged to go to universities, some of which were formerly training institutions.
Nursing has suffered along with other applied disciplines and the question is raised of where is the scholarship and where are the scholars in nursing? A by-product of this anomalous situation is that there is currently an anti-intellectual ethos pervading nursing and anything perceived to be intellectual is criticised as elitist (see for example, the first article in this issue, ‘The accessibility of research-based knowledge in UK acute care settings’, pp. 10–21, and the associated commentary in ‘This issue of JAN’, pp. 3–4). Curiosity, creativity and a passion for ideas seem to be out-moded. The desire to explore ideas, to illuminate topics, and to subject them to criticism is being lost and only rarely do we see scholars in nursing who study a particular topic with single-minded devotion. The latter, of course, is also influenced by the vagaries of funding for nursing research and the idea of programmatic research extending forward for several years with a group of dedicated researchers is largely unknown in the discipline.
There are many, including those responsible for nursing in universities, who would like to see nursing stripped of any aspirations towards, or pretence of, scholarship. They bring an apprenticeship model to the enterprise and would prefer a process of training with a ‘measurable’ input, throughput and output – preferably skills- or competency- based – resulting in meaningless but loquaciously titled certificates with little more than local credibility. Eraut’s (1994, p. 166) point that ‘competence may be preferred to excellence if the result is quicker and cheaper’ is being borne out. The last thing the people in positions of authority or power over nurse education would appear to want is questioning, confident and assertive nurses. Even in the era of evidence-based healthcare, nurses should know their place.