Changes in the education of nurses over the century

Criticism of the use of student nurses as cheap labour had begun as early as the 1930s. Change was slow in coming, but started with hospitals feeling the need to hire graduate nurses to provide more complex and sophisticated care. Nurses, to that point, had often found employment as independent practitioners offering care in patients' homes rather than in a hospital setting.

In the late 1940s, an experimental school in Ontario demonstrated quite clearly that nurses could be trained in two years if the emphasis was on actual training rather than providing cheap labour to the hospital. The next step in Alberta was to establish diploma nursing programs at community colleges.

The push towards nursing education in settings other than hospitals had come from a number of sources. The Weir Report in 1932 had been the first recommendation and in 1951 Dr. Mildred Montag from Columbia University recommended a similar program. Justice Emmett Hall as chairman of the Royal Commission on Health Services in the sixties was of the same opinion.

After 1968, with more money available from the federal government under the Medical Care Act, more hospitals were built and more nurses hired. At the same time, there was a general move across Canada to broaden nurses' training. It included more general education, as well as the hospital training that had been the main part of the diploma nursing school.

The first programs established at community colleges in Alberta were at Mount Royal College (Calgary) in 1967 and Red Deer College in 1968. Within a very short period similar moves took place in Edmonton, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. A five-year integrated program was available at the University of Alberta at the same time, and by 1970 both the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary had established four-year integrated programs.

The Alberta Task Force on Nursing Education was appointed in 1975 and eventually recommended that everyone entering the profession of nursing have a bachelor's degree. There was considerable controversy over this proposal, more studies were done, and the system that resulted was a cooperative effort between community colleges and universities for integrated degree programs. After several postponements, the provincial government and the College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta set 2010 as the year when a degree will be required for "entry to practice".

Distance education was added to the mix, which enables students outside Alberta and even outside Canada to obtain a nursing degree from Athabasca University. Graduate programs have been available in the province since 1975 and the University of Alberta, for example, currently has eighty nurses enrolled in its Ph.D. program, enabling them to teach at the university level or to gain further knowledge in their particular specialties.