Education

Raising the requirements

A critical shortage of nurses fuels the debate over mandatory degrees

John Schofield March 12 2001
Education

Raising the requirements

A critical shortage of nurses fuels the debate over mandatory degrees

John Schofield March 12 2001

Raising the requirements

Education

A critical shortage of nurses fuels the debate over mandatory degrees

After 30 years on the job, Petra Cooke could be forgiven for feeling she’s seen it all. But in the increasingly complex world of Canadian health care, the 55-year-old nurse from Hamilton still believes she has a few lessons to learn. That’s why Cooke is doggedly pursuing her nursing degree, juggling work with more than 20 hours of study each week. As a young woman in her native Scotland, she automatically assumed, like most of her peers, that a shorter diploma program was the natural ticket to a nursing career. Not anymore. Nurses today contend with often punishing patient loads and a dizzying array of high technology. “We have to have a much deeper and broader knowledge as we face the future,” says Cooke, a former

president of the College of Nurses of Ontario. “If young people want to make a career in nursing, a degree is going to be a necessity.”

In many parts of Canada, it already is. In the past decade, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia,

New Brunswick and Saskatchewan have all closed nursing diploma programs, which typically run from two to three years, and made four-year nursing degrees mandatory for those entering the profession. Last year, Ontario de-

clared that degrees will be required by 2005. Across the province, universities and diploma-granting community colleges are racing to forge joint degree programs, speeding up the harmonization of the postsecondary system.

But faced with a nationwide shortage of nurses, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec have been hesitant to completely abandon diploma programs, despite calls to do so from the Canadian Nurses Association and other nurses’ organizations. Such ; groups say that the political stalling points to an insidious gender bias that undervalues the work nurses do. About 95 per cent of nurses in Canada are jj women. “If engineers said they needed 1 one more year of education,” says Ginette Lemire Rodger, president of the Canadian Nurses Association, “the government wouldn’t say, ‘You don’t need that.’ It’s mind-boggling.”

As hospitals scramble for help, the debate is centring on whether diploma programs can help alleviate the critical shortage of nurses. Many nursing groups say

the crisis has more to do with government bungling than how long it takes to become a nurse. No one is saying that the current shortage of doctors should be solved by cutting their education by a year, argues Doris Grinspun, executive director of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario. Increasingly, she says, young people pursuing careers in nurs-

ing want to study at the university level.

Even so, some governments still see diploma programs as an important way to boost the number of nurses. Last year, Manitoba’s new NDP government reversed the provinces four-year-old degree-only policy and reinstated the nursing diploma program at Winnipeg’s Red River College. Rick Dedi, an assistant

deputy minister with Manitoba Health, says that, with the University of Manitoba producing an average of 135 nurses a year, the province was falling far short of its needs. Says Dedi: “I don’t think the one-size-fits-all solution is going to be tenable anywhere.”

Not all nurses are convinced that degrees are the way to go either. About 85 per cent of practising nurses in Canada are diploma-trained. Some fear that a wholesale move to degrees will relegate them to second-class status. Kathleen Connors, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, says such a move could also push tuition fees beyond the reach of many. For those who pursue degrees—either early on or later in life like Petra Cooke—the sacrifices are worth it. “It gives you a solid core to build your career on,” says Cooke. And these days, nurses can use all the help they can get.

John Schofield