The number of people in England applying to study nursing at university continues to be 23% lower than last year, the latest official data reveals, indicating no signs of a recovery since interim figures were revealed at the start of 2017.
In particular, concerns over a “sharp drop” in the number of mature students applying to undergraduate nursing courses – of 28% – have been raised.
“Ministers were warned of this worrying trend in January and they had two months before the final application deadline to sort it out”
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) said that up until its most recent deadline of 24 March there were 36,720 applicants to nursing for the academic year starting in autumn 2017 – when students will no longer receive bursaries. At the same point in 2016 there were 47,390 applicants.
The new figures reflect the same scenario revealed two months ago at the major deadline for UCAS applications in January, when it was confirmed 23% fewer people from England had selected nursing as at least one of their course choices.
Meanwhile, overall applicant numbers to nursing degree courses across the UK starting this autumn (48,810) continues to be lower than the same point last year (60,350), representing a 19% drop. This is also around the same level of reduction seen at the January deadline.
The latest data up until March, published today by UCAS, shows mature nursing student applicants are the cohort with the biggest drop off (28%), compared with other age groups, in England.
There have been 15,160 applicants aged 25 and over so far in 2017, compared with 21,060 at the same point in 2016. Meanwhile, this year there have been 6,080 applicants from England aged 21 to 24 years old, which is fewer than last year’s 8,400.
“Tomorrow’s nursing workforce, especially older applicants with young families, have been deterred at the very moment the NHS needs them most”
In contrast, the reduction in the number of applicants who are younger has not been so great. English applicants in the 18 to 20 year old group total 15,460 so far this year. But at the same time in 2016, there were 17,920, representing a drop of 16%.
The Royal College of Nursing said the “sharp drop” in older students should cause the “greatest concern” for the government and national workforce planning body Health Education England.
“These applicants bring much-valued life experience into nursing but are also particularly drawn to the parts of the NHS that find it hardest to recruit,” said RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies.
”Plans to transform mental health care rely on these nurses and the government must not allow services to be hampered by the fall,” she said.
She said the 23% drop in applicant numbers seen in January should have served as a warning to the government ahead of this most recent deadline.
“Ministers were warned of this worrying trend in January and they had two months before the final application deadline to sort it out,” said Ms Davies.
“The government scrapped the bursaries students relied on and imposed fees,” she said. “This leaves a serious concern that the government is storing up problems for the future.
“The RCN consistently warned the government that its decision to scrap bursaries and charge fees would result in decreased applications. Tomorrow’s nursing workforce, especially older applicants with young families, have been deterred at the very moment the NHS needs them most,” said Ms Davies.
The RCN estimates there are 24,000 nursing posts across the UK that are unfilled.