The number of people from England applying to train as a nurse has fallen for a second year in a row, dropping by a further 13% compared with the same point in 2017, official figures have shown.
This is on top of a 23% reduction last year, meaning applicants are now down by around a third since the government in England opted to end free education for student nurses and instead switch to a loans system.
“The application data also highlights continuing falls in demand from older students and to nursing courses in England”
A total of 29,390 people from England have so far applied to study nursing at university next year, compared with the 33,810 who had applied by the same point in 2017, according to a report by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).
In 2016, which marked the last time people would have their university fees paid for, there were 43,800 applicants to nursing from England.
The drop in the number of older students was more stark, with a 15% decline among those aged 20-24, and a 19% decreased among those aged 25 or over.
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Today’s UCAS report shows the numbers of applicants to nursing from Northern Ireland and Wales have also fallen for a second year in a row, by 6% and 2%, respectively.
In contrast, the number of people from Scotland who have applied to nursing courses has increased slightly, by 4%, despite a small drop last year. This means the country has returned to around the same number of applicants it had in 2016, of about 4,800.
UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant said: “Today’s figures show that UK higher education continues to be a highly popular choice for 18 year olds, and draws students of all ages from around the world to the UK.
“However, the application data also highlights continuing falls in demand from older students and to nursing courses in England,” she said.
“These are challenges for everyone involved in higher education to work on together. We must continually seek to evaluate what works well, and what doesn’t,” she added.
“Extra university places are only worthwhile if they are filled and the NHS gets a newly trained nurse”
Ms Marchant highlighted that universities were still accepting applications until 30 June.
Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Nursing is a wonderful career but the government must do more to make it attractive to the tens of thousands of new nurses we need.
“If ministers fail, they are storing up unimaginable problems for the future,” she said. “The staffing crisis must be stopped from spiralling further.”
“Extra university places are only worthwhile if they are filled and the NHS gets a newly trained nurse. When it is haemorrhaging so many experienced people, this has never been more important,” she added.
Professor Brian Webster-Henderson, chair of the Council of Deans of Health, said: “The decline in applications to nursing courses is very concerning and highlights the urgent need for a national campaign to promote the many positive aspects of healthcare careers and counter the negative messages from the recent media coverage of the pressures of working in healthcare and the shortages of nurses”.
“We continue to be particularly concerned about the fall in application rates for mature students,” he said. “We have consistently identified this as something that needs close monitoring and, if necessary, targeted interventions to mitigate against this particular risk”.
“If we are to see the increase in the number of nurses, midwives and allied health professionals required to ensure that we have the workforce we need, it is vital that we see immediate action to support a growth in student numbers and a robust strategic approach to future workforce planning,” he added.
The controversial plans to axe bursaries and introduce a loans system for pre-registration student nurses, midwives and allied health professionals in England were confirmed by ministers in July 2016.
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As a result, from 1 August 2017, new students were given access to the standard student support package of tuition fee loans and support for living costs, instead of an NHS grant.
Removing the bursary meant course places were no longer commissioned and paid for by Health Education England, which the government claimed would allow an extra 10,000 training places to be created by 2020, because universities would no longer be restricted by the public purse.
As revealed last summer by a Nursing Times investigation, some universities have chosen to reduce the size of their nursing courses in the wake of the removal of bursaries in England. However, it remains a varied picture, with others choosing to increase course sizes.
Concerns have been raised in particular about the ongoing viability of some learning disability nursing courses and also the number of future nurses being educated for the area, with warnings from both the Council of Deans and Health Education England itself.