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Nursing degree applicants fall 23% in wake of bursary loss


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”

Janet Davies

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.

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”

Jessica Corner

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.

Royal College of Nursing

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Janet Davies

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”

Steve West

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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Christina McAnea

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

Dame Jessica Corner

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   20172016-17 % change
 England  42,650  45,530  44,060  43,800  33,810 -23%
 Northern Ireland  2,890  2,710  2,640  2,700  2,510 -7%
 Scotland  4,490  5,100   5,020  4,800  4,630 -4%
 Wales  2,790   2,750  2,810  2,970  2,640 -11%
 – UK  52,820  56,090  54,540  54,270  43,590 -20%
 EU (excluding UK)  1,680  1,590  1,460  1,480  1,110 -25%
 Not EU  330  360  390  340  400 19%
 – All  54,840  58,040  56,380  56,080  45,090 -20%



Readers' comments (6)

  • This fully endorses the recommendation to review the decision to remove the bursary which was made in a paper which was released yesterday by Plymouth University as part of a 6-paper set 'The iSPER Brexit Series', timed to correspond with the second reading in Parliament of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. See paper 3: 'The potential impact of Brexit on health: education, research and the wider NHS' on the following link:

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  • I was told that many people applied to do the nursing degree because of the bursary and then, having achieved the degree, left in any event. They applied for other work which required a degree. We lost them anyway.
    There has always been a very high drop out rate after qualifying. In the 1960's-70's it was in the order of 30%.
    The manpower planning for education in the 1980's and 1990's did not take this into account or try to address why it happened. Nurses have continued to be low paid, it is grinding hard work, often not appreciated with poor terms and conditions and there continues to be a blame culture which makes the occupation unattractive and socially challenging.

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  • Nurses are treated badly
    they are paid poorly
    persecuted by the NMC, 4 years of training to run the risk of being struck off for little things?
    deliberately placed in a weak position so anyone can bully and harass without risk to themselves
    My advice do not take up nursing do something else
    I am surprised it is not a 100% reduction in take up
    Anybody thinking about taking up nursing should read about the Amin Abdullah case first

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  • Who would want to do a nursing degree? If you have the academic qualifications you would pick another degree. One where you don't have work while studying, where you don't have to clean up sick and poo, where you don't have to work shifts and bank holidays. Where you don't get abused by patients and their relatives because they are so frustrated with the limitations of the service. Where when qualified you get paid a graduates salary.

    I could go on and on but there's no point, no-one in authority is listening. They are all on Twitter believing their own hype, only talking to the same sort of people in their own social networks.

    The world has changed, young women don't have to be grateful for any job, they have choice and why would they choose nursing?

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  • We can still save our NHS if the government can be empathetic enough to put themselves in nurses' lives but it is too late.

    Simply put it this way. If you are currently nursing for several years experiencing the real NHS working environment and lifestyle of nurses, how it affects your personal, family, social, emotional, physical, spiritual and mental aspects of your life; will you recommend your family members and friends to take up nursing as a profession? If your answer is No, then the government is in delusion about all these policies that are destroying our future nursing profession.

    However, if the government can improve the morale of nurses by changing the national patient nurse ratio, safe enough for nurses to carry out their multitudes of task and giving them sensible salaries, tantamount to the sacrifices and responsibilities they are rendering to our health service, then it would be so much encouraging for our younger generations to be part of future nursing worforce.

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  • The government won't do it without encouragement from our own senior nurse leaders and as Anonymous at 1:28 pm says

    "I could go on and on but there's no point, no-one in authority is listening. They are all on Twitter believing their own hype, only talking to the same sort of people in their own social networks. "

    It is also so much easier for them to revalidate, spending their work time attending meetings etc, contributing to CPD hours and reflective accounts. Many of us are having to do that in our own time whilst already struggling with long unpaid hours and understaffed wards.

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