Towards professional autonomy: a commentary on ‘Expectations and Disappointments’ in development of the Royal College of Nursing


  • David Towell MA PhD

    Corresponding author
    1. Assistant Director, King's Fund Centre and Senior Research Fellow, School for Advanced Urban Studies, University of Bristol
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Kings Fund Centre, 126 Albert Street, London NW1 7NF.


The Royal College of Nursing of the United Kingdom has been engaged over recent years in a unique process of organizational change. Since 1973 sustained efforts have been made to mobilise widespread membership participation in shaping a new college structure which enables the Rcn to function effectively in representing the profession and in developing expertise on all aspects of nursing. A critical element has been creation of a network of ‘Rcn Centres’ to provide a professional forum in each locality.

A recent study by Bridget Ramsay has followed up this process. Its title. Expectations and Disappointments, reflects the mixed views of those involved on the progress which has been made. This article provides a commentary on Ramsay's analysis against the background of the complex situation of the Rcn in the early 1970s and the considerations which led the College to adopt an innovative approach to change. Particular attention is given to the influences which have made the growth of an active and integrated ‘Rcn at local level’ quite problematic.

It is suggested that the course Rcn development has taken in part reflects important elements in the nursing culture which members learn from their work in hospitals. Accordingly the Rcn experience has wider implications for the profession, not least for contemporary efforts, to achieve the greater professional autonomy necessary for nurses to implement more individualized patient care.