“What are nurse academics for?”


“What are nurse academics for?”

Having pondered on the future of nursing education given various issues (see *), it occurs to me that we could do with some coordinated critical thinking and action in response.

The literature suggests that some (nurse) academics are very uneasy about the direction that education practice is taking (Thompson 2009, Walker, 2009, Morrall 2010, Shields et al 2011). Darbyshire (2011) suggests that many colleagues say they are too busy to research, publish, present or otherwise engage in scholarship, I have suggested similar (Goodman 2011). The main reason put forward (he writes) is that they see their job is primarily to teach and support students. However, I would add to that growing managerialism and bureaucracy of modern university life (and not just in the UK) allied to the overemphasis on reproducing ‘cognitive capitalism’ in which universities are becoming factory like, (Roggero 2011) turning out fodder for the ‘knowledge economy’ which undervalues critical thinking (Morrall, 2010).


Public concerns about poor quality care, NHS restructuring, funding cuts to humanities, challenges to public sector funding, global health issues linked to sustainability and the challenges of climate change, the commodification of education and its concomitant challenge to critical thinking, the triumph of neoliberal ideology in all areas of social, health and education policy, and an instrumental/vocationally oriented educational philosophy.







For nursing, our partners in the NHS are so stretched in many clinical areas that student support is at breaking point in terms of their educational development in practice. Clinical practice for too many resembles nothing more than old style apprenticeship experiences where intellect withers, let alone flowers, and the tension between getting the work done and education that Kath Melia identified in the 70’s is as strong as ever.  

In this context, Gary Rolfe (2010 p 703) recently noted:

“If the discipline of nursing is to survive and flourish as anything more than a provider of vocational training, it is imperative that we make connections and find our place in the wider community of academics and scholars in what remains of the modern University”.

Darbyshire (2011) goes further:

“nurse educators need to do what they should have been doing the moment nursing moved from the old ‘college of nursing’ world into the university sector and that is connecting with and embracing the world of scholarship that did, and hopefully still does, characterise university life”…..“As a nurse educator, you are not in the business of ‘giving lectures’, ‘marking papers’, ‘supporting students’. ‘facilitating tutorials’, ‘designing curricula’ or the like. You are in the transformation business” (Darbyshire 2011 p 723). I think this is deliberately provocative and needs to be read in its context. My personal feeling is that we are ‘in the business’ as described but without the transformation bit and struggling to juggle the competing demands placed upon us. However, I also think that some demands maybe self-inflicted, and result from acquiescence, tiredness and apathy which result from disempowerment flowing from treadmill like educational processes.

He then goes on to describe what transformation might mean. While I think his points have merit, there is just a tad too much emphasis on the utility of academic work as a criterion for assigning value, thus omitting the liberal humanistic approach to education which sees it as a ‘good in itself’.  That being said the challenge is then put:

“if you are not actively engaged in the research and scholarship of nursing education then be prepared to face the question, “what business do you have being part of a University?” (Darbyshire 2011 p 723).

Good question.

What to do?

I think there is a debate to be had here about the meaning and value and purpose of nursing education. I mean a real debate informed by philosophies, reason and evidence that informs and creates the cultural edifice in which we work. We need to examine the organisational culture which forms the scaffold for our educational values and priorities. There may be taken for granted assumptions which upon examination do not hold water. For example, that we have to account for every hour a student spends in theory and that this is achieved through attendance registers. Another assumption may be about research being too time consuming or too constrained by faculty priorities, there may be assumptions about scholarly activity v teaching or what ‘teaching’ actually means. We may consider whether (Nursing?) Theory informed education as well as research informed education itself may have disappeared from curricula replaced by narrowly defined epistemologies that close down evidence based practice into the confines of ‘empiricalitis’ and the tenets of positivistic science. There may be some bureaucratic processes that actually do not enhance the quality of the student experience at all (the standard module evaluation forms?) either because they do not have robust evaluation or because they are gathering the wrong data. This matters because every minute spent on administrative action is a minute not spent on intellectual sharing and development. The next generation of nurse educators needs mentoring, but they need the intellectual freedom to challenge orthodoxy which requires intellectual spaces or ‘liberated territories’ (Zizek 2008) which are havens of thinking into which all thinkers can migrate and from which thoughts can proliferate and social change can reify.

The reason not to discuss this will of course be time, the treadmill can’t be switched off, can it?

Benny Goodman

(refs available on demand)