Applications to study nursing in England have increased slightly from last year but are still down 30% since student bursaries were scrapped, latest figures reveal.
Official data shows 30,650 people had applied to an undergraduate degree nurse course in the country by the January 2019 deadline, a 4% rise from 29,390 at the same point in 2018.
“Health care services will ultimately have even fewer nurses to treat us”
However, applications have fallen from 33,810 in 2017 and 43,800 in 2016 – the last year students had their tuition fees paid for under the bursary scheme.
The government’s funding reform hit mature students the hardest. While the latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) show a 2% increase in applications from those aged 25 and over compared to last year, they are still down 41% from 2016.
Critics say the sharp decline will worsen the recruitment crisis in mental health and learning disabilities nursing because these specialties have traditionally attracted older people with more life experience.
With around 40,000 nurse vacancies in England alone, Dame Professor Donna Kinnair, acting chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said the figures showed the scale of the workforce challenge ahead.
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“With applicant numbers showing no sign of recovering since the removal of student funding, health care services will ultimately have even fewer nurses to treat us in our hospitals, homes, schools and clinics,” said Dame Donna, who warned that failure to act now “risks patient care for a generation”.
She reiterated the college’s call to the government as part of its “fund our future” campaign to invest at least £1bn a year back into student nurse education.
Across the UK, there has been a 5% rise in applications to nurse programmes, from 40,600 in 2018 to 42,820 in 2019. This is the first rise in student nurse applications by the January deadline since 2014.
“Universities have worked hard to recruit to courses in a challenging environment”
Submissions from people in European Union countries have peaked by 3% from last year but are still 30% lower than in 2016 – the year of the Brexit vote.
Conversely, interest from aspiring student nurses from outside the EU has reached a record high.
By January there had been 600 international applications – the highest since the UCAS data set began in 2010 and up from 450 last year.
Professor Brian Webster-Henderson, chair of the Council of Deans of Health, which acts as a voice for UK faculties of nursing, midwifery and allied health professions, cautiously welcomed the figures.
“The rise in the number of applicants to nursing courses across the UK is positive news and shows there is strong interest in pursuing nursing as a career,” he noted.
“Universities have worked hard to recruit to courses this year in a challenging environment, but this work needs to be supported by sustained, high profile recruitment campaigns to reach out to a diverse pool of applicants and deliver continued growth in student numbers in the future,” he said.
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Professor Webster-Henderson said the small increase in mature applicants was “very welcome” but added that this area still needed careful monitoring.
He highlighted that while some nursing courses were over-subscribed, some learning disability, mental health and adult nursing programmes were facing difficulties attracting good applicants.
The council is calling for the government to introduce a maintenance grant to offer financial support to student nurses who are often unable to take on work due to the demands of their studies and clinical placements.
“Scotland desperately needs more nurses”
Meanwhile, Theresa Fyffe, director of the RCN in Scotland, said it was “really good” to see a 9% increase in applications to nursing courses in the country, from 4,820 to 5,250.
“Scotland desperately needs more nurses if every patient is to receive safe and effective care now and in the years to come,” she added.
Last year, first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that bursaries for student nurses in Scotland would rise to £10,000 per year by 2020-21.