Nursing degree applications have continued to plummet in England, falling by almost 5,000 compared to last year, show the latest official figures.
The data released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services (UCAS) marks the end of the main application period and confirms applications to nursing courses have dropped by around a third in the two years since the nursing bursary was scrapped.
A total of 35,260 people from England applied to study nursing at university next year, compared with the 40,060 who had applied by the same point in 2017, according to the UCAS report.
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This represents a 12% drop in numbers since last year – 4,800 fewer applications to nursing degree courses. Overall, there has been a 32% decline in applications since March 2016 – the last year students received financial support.
The fall in the number of mature students aged over 25 applying to do nursing degrees was even more extreme, with a 16% drop by the 30 June deadline, compared with the previous year and a total decline of 40% since June 2016.
“The decline in applications to nursing courses remains a concern”
There was a 19% drop among those aged 25 to 29 since last year, a 15% decline among those aged 30 to 35 and a 14% drop in applications among those aged 35 and over.
The UCAS figures, which come just a week after the NHS in England launched a major nurse recruitment drive, suggest the sector should steel itself for a drop in actual student numbers come September.
In September 2017, 700 fewer students began nurse training than the year before – the first intake after the changes to student funding.
Today’s UCAS report also shows numbers applying to nursing courses from Northern Ireland dropped by 7%. However, numbers applying from Scotland increased by 2% and from Wales by 1%.
Any further applications to nursing courses will now be processed through clearing.
The Royal College of Nursing said the figures showed the decision to remove the bursary in England had been “a disaster” amid ongoing shortages of nurses.
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“Failing to recruit more nurses puts patients at risk, and with 40,000 nurse vacancies in England alone, we cannot sit back and watch applications fall year on year,” said RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies.
“It is clear now that removing the bursary has been a disaster,” she said. “It is time ministers looked again at this policy, before patients suffer the consequences.”
She said the drop in mature students applying to study nursing was a “particular concern”.
“These students represent a vital part of the nursing workforce, particularly in mental health and learning disabilities,” she said.
“It is these areas that benefit most from the life experience mature students bring, and where the shortage of nurses is most keenly felt,” said Ms Davies.
She added: “We urgently need financial incentives to attract more students into the profession, and nursing students must be encouraged and supported.”
The UCAS data shows an 8% drop in the number of students from the EU applying to nursing courses in the UK. However, the number of applicants from countries outside the EU increased by 13% to 750.
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Professor Brian Webster-Henderson, chair of the Council of Deans of Health, said: “The decline in applications to nursing courses remains a concern and will continue to require close monitoring, particularly for mature students and those areas experiencing difficulties in recruiting.
“However, we welcome the recent campaigns by Health Careers and the Department of Health and Social Care to promote healthcare courses and careers and we will continue to work closely with our partners in support of these campaigns,” he said.