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NHS staff pop back to university for skills update

THE NHS University, which the Government claims will be the world's biggest, will play a key role in rectifying the health service's ills by helping to recruit and retain staff, its chief executive has said.

Professor Bob Fryer said learning alone was not a panacea, but that it could play a vital role in creating change.

The director of New College Southampton and University for Industry board member took up his position last month as head of what he described as Britain's first "large public sector corporate university".

The NHSU venture was ambitious, Professor Fryer said, but at the same time exciting because it had the chance to be innovative by starting with a "relatively blank sheet of paper".

In an interview with The TES, Professor Fryer said he was attracted to the pound;100,000-a-year job by the combination of both further and higher education, with partnership and collaboration at its core.

The NHS spends about pound;2 billion a year on training and education for one million workers. The university would do much more than simply refocus and unify existing provision.

Many NHS staff were missing out on training, he said. One aim will be to ensure that every worker is able to update their qualifications through the university.

Another will be to give people the skills needed for promotion to higher-level jobs. This has put it on a collision course with universities already running healthcare courses. Vice-chancellors fear that the new venture will become a rival with unfair advantages.

Professor Fryer stressed that the university could only be successful if it worked closely with existing providers such as the Open University, Learndirect, colleges and universities.

Nevertheless, there are plans to seek a royal charter so that NHSU can legitimately be called a university and offer its own awards. In the meantime, awards will be issued in partnership with other institutions.

A former director of Learndirect, Professor Fryer said it was vital that online materials of high quality played a part. "The emphasis on quality and standards from the word go is going to be absolutely central."

Many hospitals already had learning centres, but the NHSU needed to cater for workers who did not have time during working hours to study. "We will need to be very imaginative in how we make learning opportunities available to them," he said.

Courses begin in Autumn 2003.

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