THE timing of the province’s rushed request to nursing colleges to submit proposals on increasing their respective admissions as fast as possible has sparked widespread speculation.
"The nursing shortage is nothing new," said Lynda Balneaves, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Manitoba, adding it applies to both practising professionals and nurse educators. "In fact, even four or five years ago, the alarm bells were being rung."
Last month, the provincial government put out a request to the schools to create draft plans on increasing enrolment of future nurses. It was made clear the province wants an additional 200 seats in Manitoba, and funding will be provided to support scale-ups.
Schools were then given four days to turn over blueprints.
The call came 14 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, during a third wave that has stretched a health-care system to its limits, and amid contentious bargaining talks. The Manitoba Nurses Union membership has since voted overwhelmingly in favour of taking strike action.
Advanced Education Minister Wayne Ewasko was not made available for an interview on the subject Thursday.
In a lengthy statement, Ewasko said the province called for proposals on expanding nursing programs — and did not mandate expansion — because nurses are in high demand now more than ever, both locally and worldwide.
"The province will often reach out to our post-secondary institutions to work on addressing a labour market need," Ewasko said. "It is our belief that the increase of nursing training seats in our post-secondary education system will increase the supply of Manitoba nurses."
The plan "feels more like a mirage," said MNU president Darlene Jackson.
"If the government actually wants to make a difference in our future, they need to deal with the issues on the table that would make Manitoba a desirable place to practise nursing," Jackson said in a statement Thursday.
During a U of M senate meeting, school president Michael Benarroch spoke Wednesday about the proposal scenario being "atypical" and addressed the fact some staff were "very nervous" because of the quick turnaround required.
Faculty in the nursing college have expressed frustration they were not consulted on the draft put forward, which includes major scheduling changes they say could affect educational quality and research time, among other things.
Benarroch said internal processes will be followed before anything is approved.
"They have told us that they want to make resources available and that they want to be targeted to a specific area, which is nursing. That’s something I think we’re going to see a lot more (of)," he told the senate.
The Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations put out a news release Thursday condemning the province’s request as an ironic "back-of-the-napkin plan," drawn up after years of post-secondary budget cuts and political interference in school autonomy.
"We’ve been in a crisis position for a long time and just trying to dump on 200 new nursing students, it’s really not getting at the root of the problem," said Orvie Dingwall, vice-president of the organization and a health sciences librarian at U of M.
Complex issues, ranging from nurses working without a contract to work/life balance concerns, are impacting retention, said Balneaves, who has heard firsthand about the front-line stresses her students have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In her view, widespread collaboration between health-care stakeholders, nursing educators included, is required to discuss how to expand seats while ensuring quality education. She suggested one option is developing an intensive second-degree nursing program at the U of M.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.