‘There’s so much respect for the NHS right now’: interest in healthcare degrees on the rise

A healthcare degree is a route into a lifelong career in which you get to make a difference to somebody’s life every day. What’s more, with current vacancies for NHS nurses in England alone at approximately 40,000, a job as a health professional is almost guaranteed to be recession-proof as the economic fallout from Covid-19 continues.

The national health emergency has thrown the NHS under a new spotlight, with universities reporting unprecedented interest in degrees which lead to a health profession. Applications to train to be a nurse, midwife or paramedic have soared, in some cases by as much as 24%, since the coronavirus pandemic began.

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Meanwhile, the NHS Careers website received more than 1.2m visits during seven weeks in March and April – a 52% rise compared with the same period last year. The biggest interest – 139% – came from 18- to 24-year-olds and the number of hits on how to become a paramedic rocketed by 217%.

The increased interest comes as no surprise to Natalie Eccleston, who holds an offer for child nursing at Staffordshire University. She says the profession’s response to Covid-19 and the public support for the NHS have made her realise she is making the right career choice.

“There is so much going for the NHS at the moment in terms of respect,” she says. “It’s always been revered by the people in it, in their own field, like nurses, but now that recognition is felt by everybody. It makes me feel proud that I am going to be part of it.”

Ann Ewens, dean of the school of health and social care at Staffordshire University, agrees that the coronavirus pandemic, although devastating, is a big moment for the NHS. “I do think changes may come and one of those is a resurgence of the role of health careers.”

Since last autumn, applications to train as a nurse or midwife at Sheffield Hallam University, which has one of the UK’s largest nursing departments, went up by an average 16%, while radiotherapy and oncology rose by 24%. The university is now confident that if local trusts can increase their number of practice placements for students – usually 50% of a health degree programme – it can meet the increased demand for more student places.

Its head of department for nursing and midwifery, Dr Toni Schwarz, says the university is working with its partners to increase placement capacity as well as looking at its own resources. “I think it will be achievable, especially if you consider the move to more blended learning (a mix of face- to-face and online learning) because of Covid-19.”

The increased interest in NHS careers may also be down to new annual non-refundable maintenance grants from September of between £5,000 to £8,000 for nursing and some allied health profession undergraduates in England – including physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

Prof Brian Webster-Henderson, a University of Cumbria pro vice-chancellor and chair of the council of deans at Health UK, thinks healthcare is a safe bet for students starting their degrees during a recession. “I think there is a very small chance of a student not getting a job at the end of their studies,” he says. “The NHS workforce is in a bit of a crisis – so I can’t see employment being a problem in either the short or long term.”

Where can a healthcare degree take you?

There are a host of specialist vocational qualifications in healthcare on offer at universities, and degrees in IT, computing, English or maths can open the door to jobs in health informatics, communications and finance too. Here are three unusual healthcare degrees and where they could take you.

BSc (Hons) in operating department practice
This three-year undergraduate degree leads to a professional qualification as an operating department practitioner (ODP). ODPs work in all three phases of surgical care. They are responsible for supporting the patient during the anaesthetic phase ahead of surgery, as well as preparing surgical equipment and drugs. During surgery, they are the link between the surgeon and the rest of the operating theatre team and are responsible for the surgical equipment and handing what is needed to the surgeon. With postgraduate training, ODPs can go on to become surgical care practitioners – qualified to complete certain surgical procedures under the supervision of a consultant surgeon.

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BSc (Hons) healthcare science degree
When this degree is included in the NHS practitioner training programme, it can open the door to a career as a healthcare scientist. Health scientists have a crucial role in helping to prevent, diagnose and treat illness by applying their scientific knowledge and technical skills. They rely on highly specialised equipment to analyse body tissue, blood and other bodily fluids and many will also have direct patient contact working in clinics or hospital wards.

The degree is a mix of academic and practice-based learning, which can lead to different specialist roles. Students spend the first two years undergoing broad scientific training and choose which branch of health science to specialise in for their final year. The five options are: cardiovascular, respiratory and sleep sciences; neurosensory sciences; life sciences; clinical engineering or medical physics technology.

Master’s in nursing (dual registration)
This four-year degree, studied as an undergraduate, offers students the opportunity to qualify in two branches of nursing rather than the single branch of the traditional three-year programme. The combinations are: adult and child; adult and learning disability; adult and mental health; learning disability and child; mental health and child and mental health and learning disability. The master’s is also seen as a fast-track route for a career in nursing research or education. From September, all nursing degree students in England qualify for a non- refundable annual maintenance grant of £5,000. An extra £3,000 is available for eligible students.

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