Nurse training places have been slashed by more than 2,500 in three years, an investigation by Nursing Times has revealed – prompting fears of a “national disaster” in care.
Despite education funding actually increasing over the last three financial years, nursing has been hit hard with 12.7% fewer university places being commissioned by the NHS.
The reduction means that between 2014 and 2015 there will be several thousand fewer nurses graduating than in previous years, which will be further affected by course drop outs. The trend is in contrast to medical training, with has seen an increase in numbers.
Nursing Times collected data on the number of places on healthcare education courses commissioned by strategic health authorities. Analysis reveals there were 20,092 nursing places funded in 2010-11. This fell sharply to 17,741 in 2011-12 and dropped again to 17,546 during the current financial year, 2012-13.
London saw the biggest drop in nurse training places, falling 16% between 2010-11 and 2012-13. The next biggest drop was the Midlands at 13.8%, followed by the North at 11.5%. The smallest drop was in the South, at 9.4%.
David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester and former chair of the West Midlands group of Universities, said: “We are heading straight for a national disaster in two to three years’ time.”
Professor Green, who has previously written to prime minister David Cameron about cuts in nurse training, said the number of places commissioned by SHAs was based on projections by chief executives who were trying to save money.
He said the numbers were “divorced from reality” and not based on the actual need. “There is going to be a shortage, that’s plain to see,” he said.
The data collected by Nursing Times shows the overall Multi Professional Education and Training (MPET) budget for SHAs increased by 2% between 2010-11 and 2012-13, from £4.78bn to £4.87bn.
The number of medical and dental places commissioned at universities rose by 1% from 45,443 to 45,936 over the period.
The number of midwifery training places also rose slightly by 3.6% from 2,488 in 2010-11 to 2,578 in 2012-13. However, the Royal College of Midwives has been campaigning for an extra 5,000 midwives to be recruited to the NHS.
The impact of the fall in nurse educaiton places will be felt the most at acute providers, according to experts. The SHA figures collected by Nursing Times show the number of qualified nurses going on to train for community roles has increased by 2,171 places.
These are likely to be focused largely around health visiting, as a result of the government strategy to find an extra 4,200 health visitors by 2015.
James Buchan, professor of health sciences at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University, who has carried out research into the changing NHS workforce, said the drop did not surprise him.
He said: “What is clearly happening is the continuation of a trend of reducing the number of nurses put through training, particularly in the adult and acute areas.
“The big question is: are the reductions based on a totally systematic assessment of the likely future need or how much of it is a reflection of budget priorities.”
He said, based on current trends, there would be “significantly fewer nurses in the NHS in five to 10 years’ time.”
He added: “Migration policies are much tougher and it is now very difficult for employers to recruit non-European Union staff. That is a door that is no longer as open as it was 10 years ago.”
As part of the government’s NHS reforms, responsibility for funding education and training places will pass in April from SHAs to the new national body Health Education England.
It will have a budget of £5.5bn with 16 Local Education and Training Boards, which will be responsible for the education and training of the future healthcare workforce.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “Decisions about the number of training programmes and how to split the MPET budget between each of the professional groups are taken locally according to the need of the local providers.
“Decisions take account of anticipated future demand in the local health economy, recent information about student retention and levels of graduate employment.”