The revelation that the number of applicants for nursing courses in England has slumped by 23% in a year has forced the government to defend its controversial policy to replace bursaries with loans.
Both the Department of Health and the Department for Education issued statements in the wake of the figures revealed yesterday by the the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
Overall applicant numbers for nursing courses across the UK fell by 20% from 54,270 in January 2016 to 43,590 in January 2017. But applicants from England fell by 23%, from 43,800 to 33,810.
Controversial plans to axe bursaries and introduce a loans system for pre-registration student nurses, midwives and allied health professionals in England were confirmed last July.
The government maintained the move would allow an extra 10,000 training places to be created by 2020, because universities will no longer be restricted by the public purse.
Responding to the UCAS figures, a DH spokesman echoed the Council of Deans of Health by saying that a dip was not unexpected following the funding change, but predicted that applicant numbers were likely to recover in future.
“Every time there has been an immediate dip in application rates followed by a steady rise”
For example, there was a significant dip in applications after the increase in tuition fee loans in 2012, which bounced back in subsequent years, highlighted the DH spokesman.
He said: “Student contributions to university costs have changed on three previous occasions, and every time there has been an immediate dip in application rates followed by a steady rise.
“We are confident nursing courses will follow a similar trend and are certain we will have all the student nurses the NHS needs by September,” he said.
The spokesman added that students could continue to apply for courses starting in the autumn beyond January, and this “first application window” should not be seen as “the complete picture”.
He said the government was committed to monitoring and evaluating the effects of the reforms on application numbers, including putting in place mechanisms to help it identify “any emerging risks”.
In addition, the DH highlighted that the applicant numbers did not represent course fill rates, saying entry to nursing, midwifery and allied health profession “remains extremely competitive”.
“More young people than ever are choosing to go to university”
The spokesman said the DH would work with universities to ensure applicants were aware of the benefits on offer of undertaking a nursing degree, as well as with partners, including the Royal College of Nursing, on “taking forward” the provision of extra funding to help cover additional expenses like travel and more support for students with children.
Meanwhile, universities minister Jo Johnson said: “More young people than ever are choosing to go to university, with record application rates for 18-year-olds this year as well as those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“The reforms we are bringing in through the Higher Education and Research Bill will mean people choosing to go to university in the future will benefit from more choice and universities will have a duty to do more to promote equal opportunities,” he said.
“This government is committed to supporting all young people to reach their full potential – whether that is going to university, starting an apprenticeship or taking up a technical qualification,” he added.
New shadow health secretary in latest Labour reshuffle
However, opposition parties were quick to seize on the UCAS figures. Jon Ashworth, Labour’s health spokesman, highlighted that unions had “repeatedly warned” ministers that cutting bursaries and funding for student nurses would cut off the future supply of NHS staff.
“Now we have the proof that those warnings were right – 23% fewer people have applied to study nursing this year,” said the MP for Leicester South.
“The new recruits, which the health service so desperately needs, are being driven away before they’ve even started,” he said. “The staff are the lifeblood of our NHS.
“They give their all to keep the system going in the face of underfunding and mismanagement,” claimed Mr Ashworth.
He added: “The government ought to get a grip, show our nursing students that their time and commitment is really valued, and give them the support they need when they’re setting out on their careers.”
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb echoed Labour’s sentiments.
Lib Dems restate pre-election pledge on future NHS finances
“The government was warned when they removed nursing bursaries that they were risking the future of our NHS,” said the MP for North Norfolk and former health minister.
Now the reality is becoming clear – fewer people willing to train to work in our hospitals, putting our health system under even greater strain.
“We already have a huge shortfall in nursing staff, and now the government is making it even worse,” he said.
“The government cannot go on telling people it cares about the future of the NHS while it cuts support for training, stands by while nurses’ salaries suffer a massive drop in real terms, and allows spending per person to sink to dangerous levels,” said Mr Lamb.