Alberta’s UCP government is earmarking $15.1 million in its upcoming budget as it looks to add more nurses with foreign training to the province’s struggling health workforce.
The funds will expand a bursary for student aid for the internationally trained nurses, and add more than 600 classroom seats to nursing bridging and licensing programs, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides announced Monday.
The new classroom seats will be added over three years starting in the 2023–24 academic year, an expansion that comes with a $7.3-million price tag. In Calgary, that includes 256 new seats for a registered nurse bridging program at Mount Royal University, and 120 seats for a licensed practical nurse program at Bow Valley College.
As well, $7.8 million in annual, non-repayable bursaries are flagged for internationally educated nurses entering these programs, with recipients eligible for as much as $30,000 over five years to cover their licensing fees, tuition and living expenses, also beginning in the 2023–24 academic year. The minimum bursary is set at $8,000.
A third party is distributing the funds on behalf of Alberta Student Aid. Those awarded the bursary will be required to complete a year of nursing in Alberta for every $6,000 in funds disbursed to them.
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The funding is the latest in a series of recent moves by the UCP government targeting increased student enrolment in sectors facing a labour crunch, and particularly around health care. Last week, the province expanded funding to a different nursing bursary for low-income students.
“I think it’s a responsibility of government to look at developing solutions, short-term and long-term, that are going to help address those challenges,” Nicolaides told Postmedia on Monday.
“When we look at the challenges we’re experiencing in our health-care system, a lot of that comes back to workforce and lack of available workforce . . . We have internationally educated nurses who are here, in the province, and they’re not able to practice at their full skill level either because of cost barriers or because of the lack of availability of bridging programs.”
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The Monday announcement also fulfills part of a memorandum of understanding signed between the governments of Alberta and the Philippines last year intended to encourage Filipino nurses to immigrate to the province for work. However, Nicolaides said the new programs won’t carry any restrictions on country of origin.
He characterized accreditation and bridging for foreign nurses as one shorter-term solution to health-care short-staffing, while saying timelines for entering the workforce vary based on experience and skill level.
“If they’re assessed to be at a Canadian standard, they can get to work pretty quickly,” Nicolaides said. “Oftentimes, this occurs within the span of months whereas, of course, training a new nurse from a post-secondary standpoint with someone just coming in from high school takes several years.”
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The investment drew a positive review from Uche Nechi, a nurse who trained in Nigeria and recently graduated from Mount Royal University’s nurse bridging program. She said she waited between four and five years to be accepted into the program.
“Support like this could mean we don’t need to work as many hours at our part-time job, or draw as much from student loans as we prepare to resume our careers,” Nechi said at a government news conference Monday.
The NDP Opposition downplayed the investment, calling it “a drop in the bucket” compared to tuition increases and cuts to post-secondary during the UCP’s tenure.
Health-care workers could also be disincentivized from working in Alberta amid conflict with government, charged NDP Advanced Education critic David Eggen.
“In addition to cuts inflicted by the UCP, it is extremely difficult to recruit professionals into an environment that is so hostile to health-care workers,” Eggen said in a statement.