The number of people wanting to study nursing has crashed by over 20% this year, according to official figures, which unions said confirmed their “worst fears” about the axing of the bursary.
Overall applicants to study any degree subject have fallen across the UK, but nursing experienced the “most notable decrease”, said the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
“The future of nursing, and the NHS, is in jeopardy”
UCAS, which collates annual figures on university applications, said applicants from England who had nursing as at least one of their course choices fell by 23%, from 43,800 in 2016 to 33,810 in 2017.
Overall applicant numbers for nursing courses across the UK fell by 20% from 54,270 in January 2016 to 43,590 in January 2017.
While the drop was largest among applicants in England, there was also an 11% fall in those from Wales, 7% from Scotland and 4% from Northern Ireland.
The data appears to confirm early indications from universities in December that the number of applications – as opposed to applicants – had fallen by around 20%.
But UCAS described its analysis of full-time undergraduate applications made by the 15 January deadline as the “first reliable indicator” of higher education demand in 2017.
The controversial plans to axe bursaries and introduce a loans system for pre-registration student nurses, midwives and allied health professionals in England were confirmed by ministers last July.
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As a result, from 1 August 2017, new students will have access to the standard student support package of tuition fee loans and support for living costs, instead of an NHS grant.
Removing the bursary means course places will no longer be commissioned and paid for by Health Education England, which the government has maintained will allow an extra 10,000 training places to be created by 2020, because universities will no longer be restricted by the public purse.
“We would expect this to pick up in future years”
While representatives from the education sector largely welcomed the policy, unions and many in the nursing profession itself heavily criticised the move, arguing that it would deter applicants, especially those from poorer backgrounds.
The Royal College of Nursing highlighted today it had consistently warned ministers that replacing bursaries with loans from autumn 2017 would result in decreased applications.
Janet Davies, the RCN’s chief executive and general secretary, said: “These figures confirm our worst fears.
“With 24,000 nursing vacancies in the UK, the government needs to take immediate action to encourage more applicants by reinstating student funding and investing in student education – the future of nursing, and the NHS, is in jeopardy,” she said.
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Unison head of health Christina McAnea said: “The government said replacing bursaries with loans would bring in an additional 10,000 nurses. Instead the exact opposite has happened.
“With applications down nearly a quarter, ministers must accept they got this wrong and rethink this disastrous policy,” she said. “There’s likely to be a similar drop in applications for other NHS students, which begs the question as to who will be caring for us all in the future.”
Jon Skewes, director for policy, employment relations and communications at the Royal College of Midwives, said: “It seems a remarkable coincidence that this drastic fall in applications comes soon after the announcement that midwifery and nursing students are having their bursary scrapped.
“This is a disaster in the making for midwifery staffing in the NHS in England where there is already a shortage of 3,500 full time midwives,” he said. “I repeat our call for the government to revisit their ill informed and poorly thought through decision to scrap bursaries. “
However, those in the education sector predicted that applicant numbers would bounce back in time and highlighted that, while the number of applicants had fallen this year, the downward trend would not necessarily affect universities’ ability to fill course places, as they were normally over-subscribed.
Commenting on the new figures, the Council of Deans of Health said it was “to be expected” that there would be fewer applications in the first year following the changes to the funding system. Council chair Professor Dame Jessica Corner said: “We would expect this to pick up in future years.
“Our members report receiving a high number of good quality applications for most courses and they will continue to recruit through to the summer,” she said. “Where courses have historically had a large number of applicants, fewer applicants might well not affect eventual student numbers.”
“Government must step forward to continue to endorse and promote the degree route into these professions”
She added: “This also comes in the context of a reduction in applications to higher education across all subjects and the introduction of alternative routes into health careers such as the nursing associate and registered nurse apprenticeship programmes.”
Likewise, Professor Steve West, chair of Universities UK’s health education and research policy network, said “most universities anticipated a dip” following the funding changes.
But he also called on the government to “step forward to continue to endorse and promote the degree route into these professions”.
“These courses lead into critically important roles in our future health and care services,” he said. “They also provide an amazing range of professional careers, qualifications that are recognised all over the world and great opportunities for personal fulfilment.”
As well as the funding changes, UCAS has previously told Nursing Times that one of the reasons behind the fall in applicants could be down a smaller pool of people reapplying for courses.
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Because the acceptance rate for nursing courses increased in 2016, there were fewer students who were unsuccessful and therefore free to re-apply in 2017, a spokeswoman said.
She noted that nursing was typically an area where re-applicants made up a significant proportion of the applicant population.
The UCAS data published today showed that the number of UK nursing reappliers was down 21%, from 10,430 to 8,190 in January 2017, compared with 2016. For England, it was down 25%, from 8,440 to 6,360 in 2017.
However, the number of first-time applicants was also down by a similar percentage. UK first-time applicants fell by 19%, from 43,840 to 35,390, and for England by 22%, from 35,360 to 27,440.
According to the service’s analysis, to date, a total of 564,190 people have applied to UK higher education courses for 2017, a decrease of 5% compared to the same point last year.
“The subject experiencing the most notable decrease in applicants is nursing,” said UCAS in a statement. “Applicants from England making at least one choice to nursing fell by 23%.”
Dame Jessica Corner
In addition, the UCAS data showed that the age group most affected by the decrease was among those over 21, reflecting that most student nurses were currently in a similar age range.
UCAS said: “Most applicants to nursing are over 19-years-old and English applicants from this age group decreased by between 16% and 29%. English 18-year-old nursing applicants fell by 10%.”
It added: “English applicants to courses other than nursing fell by 4%, ranging from an increase of 1% for 18-year-olds and a reduction of 17% for 25 and over.”
UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook said: “About half the fall in nursing applicants is mirroring the fall in non-nursing applicants from older age groups.
“We are seeing large falls for older applicants, partly because of strong young recruitment in recent years depleting the pool of potential mature applicants, and probably also reflecting increased employment, the higher minimum wage, and more apprenticeship opportunities,” she added.
Meanwhile, the government’s long-term plans to expand courses could also be derailed by a lack of available placements at employers, an investigation by Nursing Times revealed last month.
However, other parts of the country may simply have problems attracting applicants, as is likely to be borne out by local and regional figures, which are also due to be published by UCAS later today.
Nursing applicants for all courses (UCAS)
|Domicile of applicant||2013||2014||2015||2016||2017||2016-17 % change|
|EU (excluding UK)||1,680||1,590||1,460||1,480||1,110||-25%|