Adjournment Debate. - Nurses' Fees.

I express my appreciation at being given the opportunity to voice my opinion on what I consider to be a very important topic concerning the nursing profession. Within the next 12 months Irish girls will, for the first time, qualify from university with a degree in nursing — the year will begin in October 1997 or January 1998. Those young girls have been studying for a diploma for the past three years, during which time they received a grant and payment of course fees from the Department of Health. The difficulty will arise when they go to university and the Department will not pay their fees. As far as I am aware, they are the only undergraduates who must pay university course fees. The Department of Health claims this is a matter for the Department of Education, but that Department claims it is a health matter. Irrespective of who should deal with it, the girls are under the impression they will have to pay their fees.

When the nurses went on strike a few weeks ago it was suggested the nursing profession is the most caring in the world. Their younger sisters are now being penalised when trying to secure a degree in nursing. The Department pays regional technical college and university course fees for other young people who take up courses with those institutions, but nurses must pay their own university fees.

Most nurses in general practice are females, but I am sure that is not the reason for this discrimination.However, one could be forgiven for thinking that because they are members of the weaker sex they are being asked to pay their own fees. Will the Minister consider this matter in an understanding manner?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it affords me an opportunity to clarify the position on behalf of the Minister for Health.

The traditional apprenticeship model of preregistration nursing education and training is currently in the process of being replaced by a new registration-diploma programme. The new programme is operated by schools of nursing in association with third level institutes. Student nurses who successfully complete the registrationdiploma programme will be awarded a diploma in nursing from the associated third level institute and will be eligible to be registered as a nurse with An Bord Altranais which, in turn, will render them eligible for employment as nurses.

The objective of the transition to the new model is to enhance nursing education and training.This is in line with key recommendations in the report The Future of Nurse Education and Training in Ireland, published by An Bord Altranais in 1994. The new programme was introduced on a pilot basis in 1994 and considerable progress has been made since then to extend the programme to the various schools of nursing. The Government is firmly committed to the programme and to providing the necessary resources for its full implementation in all disciplines at the earliest possible date. An additional £7 million has been provided for the programme this year, bringing to £13 million the amount that will be spent on the programme in 1997. The available funding will meet the roll over costs of the operation of the programme to date and ensure that substantial further progress will be made in extending it to additional schools of nursing. The Minister for Health will soon be in a position to announce the new sites at which the programme will commence during 1997.

In tandem with the developments in pre-registration education and training, the associated third level institutes, in accordance with the normal procedures applying to such institutes, are developing one year programmes leading to the award of a Bachelor of Nursing Studies degree. Since such a degree programme will be optional, nurses will be responsible for making their own arrangements for admission to, and attendance at, such programmes, including the payment of course fees. I emphasise that the possession of a degree in nursing will not be, and was never intended to be, a requirement for employment as a nurse. The requirement for employment as a nurse for those participating in the registration-diploma programme will be satisfied at the point of registration with An Bord Altranais, at which stage the successful candidates will be awarded the diploma in nursing.

The rationale behind the development of a degree programme is to provide those members of the nursing profession who wish to obtain a post-registration qualification at degree level with an opportunity to do so by means of a one year part-time programme. However, a degree in nursing is not a requirement for registration as a nurse and subsequent employment.