New initiative represents 'landmark moment' for Welsh healthcare support workers, says HEIW

Open University

Healthcare support workers who live or work in isolated parts of Wales are set to benefit from a ground-breaking initiative aimed at broadening their education and training, one that will also make Wales a healthier place to live.

Rather than having to give up work in order to study, move home, or endure lengthy commutes to attend higher education institutions providing full-time courses, healthcare support workers in Wales will for the first time be able to enrol on a range of part-time distance learning nursing programmes being made available through The Open University.

The initiative is being spearheaded by Health Education and Improvement Wales (HEIW), a new organisation formed last October dedicated to educating, training and shaping the healthcare workforce in Wales.

Healthcare support workers who undertake valuable roles supporting patients and healthcare colleagues within NHS Wales. 

The part-time option enables them to strike a study/work/life balance without having to contemplate the hardship of ceasing full-time work in order to further their education. 

It also means they won’t have to leave home to study full-time in other parts of Wales or the UK, potentially leaving their communities vulnerable in terms of lack of healthcare cover. 

Rebecca Tandy, a 25-year old healthcare support worker at Bronglais Hospital in Aberystwyth, is one of those for whom The Open University route is genuinely life changing. 

“Giving up my job and going without any pay while studying for a full-time nursing degree wasn’t an option for me,” says Rebecca from Penrhyncoch near Aberystwyth. “I simply couldn’t afford it. The nearest full-time course is at Swansea University’s Carmarthen campus which would mean a round-trip of 100 miles each day or relocating altogether, which again wasn’t an option.

“I started my four-year, part-time Open University nursing degree in February this year. It enables me to study, live in the area where I’m from and continue working at Bronglais Hospital, doing the job that I’ve dreamed of doing ever since I left school. It’s a win, win, win scenario. I couldn’t be happier.”

The Open University nursing programme in Wales is open to staff who are currently employed in healthcare support roles within NHS Wales and primary care. 

Rebecca Tandy is one of 25 healthcare support workers from across Wales making up the first cohort of students, a number that will rise to 40 for the next intake, with a view to further year-on-year increases.

All seven of the country’s health boards have given The Open University programme their full backing, with organisations receiving a salary contribution for each staff member on the programme amounting to 16 hours per week, as well as agreeing to provide an additional 7.5 hours study time each week in line with flexible learning routes provided by other Welsh universities.

“This is a landmark moment for healthcare support workers in Wales,” says Stephen Griffiths, Director of Nursing at Health Education and Improvement Wales (HEIW). 

“One of our priorities as a leader in the education, training and shaping of the Welsh healthcare workforce is to widen access to as many people as possible. In that respect The Open University was the ideal partner, given its long established record of providing long distance learning. 

“Now more than ever before, healthcare support workers from a diverse range of backgrounds across Wales will have the opportunity to study and achieve their full potential. Perhaps most importantly of all, the students themselves remain employed as healthcare support workers, meaning their employers continue to benefit from their knowledge, skills and experience.”

Louise Casella, Director of The Open University in Wales, adds: “More and more healthcare staff in Wales and taking up our new nursing degree. For many in rural areas, this could be the only option they have to study for a degree and take their career in an exciting new direction. 

“We have a great relationship with the Welsh health boards and they’ve been very supportive of our nursing degree from day one. It’s all about developing their own people, which can be more effective than costly recruitment drives. Our nursing students are already living and working locally, which means they’re less likely to move away after graduating. Keeping hold of talented staff is welcome news for hospitals and patients alike.

“This year, The Open University celebrates its 50th anniversary. In that time over 200,000 students have studied with us in Wales. We’re about opening up education to more people in society, helping them reskill and change their lives.”