The revelation this week that there have been 23% fewer people in England applying to undergraduate nursing courses in 2017 compared with 2016 will not have come as a surprise to most people.
There have been numerous warnings from unions, professional bodies and nurses themselves that the government’s decision to remove bursaries for healthcare students in England from this year would put people off the sector.
And while it’s true that other parts of the UK, where bursaries are still available, have also seen a dip in nursing applications this year – by 10% in Wales, 6% in Northern Ireland and 2% in Scotland – it is England that is faring the worst.
“Mature students have also stopped applying in the same numbers as previous years”
In particular, mature students – who make up significant proportions of certain fields of nursing training – have also stopped applying in the same numbers as previous years. Around 28% fewer people aged 25 years or older applied to study nursing in England this year – down from 24,260 in 2016 to 17,370 in 2017.
The government has in the past clung to the fact that nursing courses have always had far more applicants than training places available – indicating it is unlikely universities would not be able to fill the usual number of places, of around 20,000 in 2016.
But what the official UCAS figures have not told us so far is what regions of the country or which fields of nursing have experienced the worst declines in applications.
This could be a problem in the future because, even if the overall number of people studying does not fall (we are still yet to find out, as over the summer applicants will decide whether to accept university offers and will also find out their exam results) there may be large and unplanned variations in the spread of students across the country.
To help uncover this picture, Nursing Times asked universities for more details about their plans this coming year and among the 17 (around a third) that responded, six revealed they were planning on reducing their course sizes – some by around 20% – following the bursary removal.
“Last year most of the group had received more responses than places”
In addition, the majority (10) have so far not received enough responses confirming they are applicants’ first choice of university to fill the number of training places they are planning. Last year most of the group had received more responses than places.
While this is only a snapshot, it indicates a growing number of possible challenges that universities – and eventually employers – will be facing in different regions.
It all seems a far cry from the extra 10,000 training places the government claimed would be created by 2020 due to the switch to loans.
The Council of Deans of Health, representing UK university departments, has supported the move to loans on the basis it would allow more students to train.
“The need for an action plan couldn’t be more obvious”
But it said from the outset that some additional measures were required by the government to ensure certain parts of the workforce were not put at risk.
This seems to have fallen on deaf ears; this week the Council of Deans continued to call for a national campaign promoting healthcare careers, saying this was now “vital” – particularly in light of falls in mature student applications.
It also stressed the recent drop in the number of nurses registered to practice on the Nursing and Midwifery Council register for the first time in years.
With an estimated 40,000 nurse vacancies in England already – and an expected increase in demand over the coming years – the need for an action plan couldn’t be more obvious. So, if ministers are determined to stick to their guns on scrapping the bursary, where is the government plan to deal with the policy’s emerging consequences?