The number of new nursing students starting courses in England has fallen by more than 500 for the new academic year, official figures show.
The latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) include students who have gone through clearing up to 28 days after their A-Level results came out.
“The government’s own policy is driving down the number of trainees year after year”
Across the UK, new student nursing numbers are down by 1.28% to 26,890. It is a fall of 350 students on last year’s figure of 27,240.
While the number fell in England and Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales saw significant increases, including a higher number of mature students.
The biggest drop was in England where the number of nursing students fell by 570 to 20,250. It is a fall of 2.73% from 2017’s figure of 20,820. In Northern Ireland, the number of nursing students fell by 20 to 1050, a reduction of 1.86%.
It comes after official NHS figures last week revealed record levels of vacant nursing posts and a shortage of at least 40,000 registered nurses in England.
Although the figures for England and Wales were disappointing, clearing appears to have improved the situation compared to how things looked earlier in the summer.
Figures released in July showed that the number applying for a nursing degree in England had fallen by 12% on last year. Then figures in August showed the numbers getting a place after their A Levels had fallen by 4% since 2017.
However, following 28 days of clearing the number getting a place is down by just 2.73% on last year. Equally in Northern Ireland, applications were down 7% but the number gaining a place after clearing is only down 1.86%.
“We expect more to come as the clearing process continues this year”
It remains to be seen whether standards have been altered during clearing to get more vacancies filled.
By contrast, Scotland saw an increase of 140 nursing students taking the total to 3340, an increase of 4.3% on 2017. In Wales the number rose by 90 to 1720, an increase of 5.52% on last year.
The number of students from the rest of the European Union fell by 20 to 400 – a 4.7% reduction – while the figure for overseas students from non-EU nations rose by 30 to 130, up 30%.
A factor in the overall decline was a smaller cohort. Applicants across all UCAS courses this year were down by 3%, partly due to the fact that the number of 18-year-olds was 2.5% smaller this year.
Broken down by age the figures show disparities across the UK. In England there was a 7% rise in the number of 18-year-olds starting nursing but declines in the 19, 20-24 and over 25 age range.
Indeed, this is the first year since 2012 that the number of 20-24 year-olds enrolling has fallen below 5,000 to 4,660.
In contrast, Scotland and Wales both saw healthy rises in the number of over 25s enrolling in nursing – 12% and 13%, respectively.
Progress on narrowing the gender gap appears to have stalled. Between 2013 and 2016 there were rises in the number of men entering the profession.
But for the second year running the number of new male nursing students fell, down by 80 to 2280. The figure has not been lower since 2013.
The UCAS figures include clearing up to 13 September – 28 days after A Level results – and are not the definitive figure.
The final deadline for clearing is 20 September and the definitive figure will not be published until December. But a UCAS spokesman said the new figures included 95% of students who will get a place.
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The Royal College of Nursing condemned the figures. Lara Carmona, the RCN’s associate director policy and public affairs, said: “When there are tens of thousands of vacant nursing jobs, the government’s own policy is driving down the number of trainees year after year.
She said: “These figures are a harsh reminder for ministers of the need to properly address the staffing crisis that is putting safe and effective treatment patient care at risk.”
They showed that ministers’ 2015 reforms – including removing the student bursary – had failed, she said.
“This piecemeal approach to policy-making is futile,” she said. “We urgently need comprehensive workforce plans that should safeguard recruitment and retention and that responds to patients needs in each country. This should include incentives to attract more nursing students.”
She urged the UK government to follow the example of the law in Wales and draft bill in Scotland setting out safe staffing levels.
Hunt must also focus on nurse retention, says RCN
“And where is the review of the impact that those 2015 reforms had? The Department of Health and Social Care promised this two years ago and it is high time it was published,” she added.
The Department of Health and Social Care noted that in previous years there had been “a significant rise” in student nurse enrollment in the final stage of clearing, which would only show up in the December figures.
A spokesperson for the department said: “These early indications show that tens of thousands of students have been accepted onto nursing and midwifery courses this year.
“There are 12,500 more nurses on our wards since 2010 and currently 52,000 currently in NHS training, and we expect more to come as the clearing process continues this year,” they said in a statement.
The spokesperson added: “We value our hardworking nurses and are increasing the starting salary of a nurse by £2,000 – helping us to recruit and retain NHS nurses of the future.”