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With the average age of Australian female nursing students on the rise, family responsibilities and other life commitments are regularly taking precedence over course education, according to new research from Edith Cowan University (ECU).

While nursing remains a predominantly female profession, the type of nursing student now entering university is vastly different from past years, the research suggests. The study’s participants were female undergraduate nursing students aged 23-48, who were all mothers of children aged under 18 living at home and who began their degree while in an intimate heterosexual relationship.

Study lead Dr Lesley Andrew, a registered nurse and Senior Lecturer and Research Supervisor in ECU’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, said students’ competing demands are leading to delays in graduating and, in some cases, being forced to drop out.

“Our participants commonly prioritised family over university, which can impact participants’ capacity to study and their personal wellbeing,” Dr Andrew said.

“It’s one thing to attract people to study nursing, but we have to make sure we keep them at university until they graduate.”

Nearly all participants described their family lives as having traditional gender roles, where women carry the domestic burden, such as childcare and housework, with men being the breadwinners.

This domestic arrangement continued for most participants once they began their degree – interestingly, many participants admitted to trying to maintain and protect these traditional roles.

“Many described their attempts to protect their partners and children from the ‘intrusion’ of university on the family and to continue to prioritise their family’s needs over their own academic and carer ambition,” Dr Andrew said.

“This meant they rarely asked partners and children for help with domestic tasks; many recounted how they would forgo sleep and rest to ‘fit-in’ study.”

Dr Andrew said this stemmed from traditional ideas of motherhood forming such a large part of many of the participants’ identity prior to starting their degree.

“Over time, ‘shielding’ their family became more difficult as the expectations of university study competed for their time and energy,” she said.

“This created conflict for these women and led to feelings of guilt and distress, ultimately impacting their capacity to engage in the range of study opportunities offered by the university.”

With Health Workforce Australia estimating the nation will be short 123,000 nurses by 2030, Dr Andrew said it was critical nursing students were able to graduate university and enter the workforce.

Achieving this could include implementing measures such as offering units online, providing the choice of full-time or part-time study, and trying to better support students with family responsibilities so they are able to attend workplace-based practicums.

Dr Andrew also argues nursing degrees should incorporate gender studies so students are better placed to embrace their university experience.

“Nurse education has changed in recent decades from a model where the student is a passive recipient of information, to a critical model where the student is engaged in the process of developing autonomy and empowerment,” Dr Andrew said.

“Embedding gender theory within nursing studies would allow women nursing students to be comfortable in enacting changes in their home lives to support studying their degrees, enrich the profession and protect the future workforce supply.”

Read the full study, ‘Nursing students doing gender: Implications for higher education and the nursing profession’, here