New figures revealing a drop in nursing student numbers have escalated fears about the future of the profession already in the grip of a staffing crisis.
“It’s time for ministers to take decisive action to address the nursing shortage and keep patients safe”
Data released today shows 21,030 applicants have secured a place on university nursing programmes across the UK so far this year – a 2% reduction from last year and an 8% fall from 2016.
The decline has been driven by a sharp crash in new students from England and European Union countries outside the UK, according to latest figures published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) after A-Level results were received.
Conversely, there has been a slight rise in applicants from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and non-EU countries being placed on courses.
The statistics reveal that 15,490 people from England have been accepted on a nursing course, which is a 4% drop on 2017 and 11% reduction from two years ago.
Meanwhile, the number of EU students set to embark on nursing programmes in the UK currently stands at 330 – a drop of 23% since 2016, the year of the Brexit vote.
“We need to see sustained and targeted action to encourage more people to enter healthcare professions”
A further 7,960 students have a holding offer for a nursing course and up to 14,540 could receive a place through clearing.
The figures are revealed against a backdrop of a snowballing recruitment and retention crisis facing nursing and the wider NHS.
The Royal College of Nursing estimates there to be around 40,000 nursing vacancies in England’s health care services alone.
The downward trend in placed nursing students at this stage follows the continued fall in applicants revealed by UCAS earlier this year.
As reported by Nursing Times, 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.
The RCN blamed the latest slump in nursing student numbers on the government’s controversial decision to scrap bursaries for pre-registration nurses from August 2017 in favour of a loans system.
Dame Donna Kinnair, the union’s director of nursing policy and practice, said: “Ministers’ decisions on student funding have left nursing in managed decline. Today’s figures should be the wake-up call the government needs to properly address the staffing crisis that’s putting safe and effective patient care at risk.”
“It is time to stop tinkering around the edges – the government’s ad-hoc approach is clearly not working,” said Dame Donna.
“We urgently need comprehensive workforce plans that safeguard recruitment and retention and responds to patient need in each country,” she said. “This should include a range of incentives to attract more nursing students.
Source: Kate Stanworth
“Though we will see additional students placed through clearing in the coming weeks, today’s figures mean fewer nurses will enter our understaffed healthcare system in three years’ time, further jeopardising patient care. This situation cannot be allowed to continue,” said Dame Donna.
She added: “The government is nowhere near recruiting the 10,000 extra health care students we were promised by 2020. We need nurses with the education and skills to lead patient care. It’s time for ministers to take decisive action to address the nursing shortage and keep patients safe.”
The RCN also raised concerns about the continued drop in mature students. The UCAS figures show 6,260 people aged 25 and over from England have been accepted on nursing courses – falling from 6,570 in 2017 and 7,450 in 2016.
This change threatens to further destabilise learning disability and mental health nursing, which have been worst hit by staffing woes and have traditionally relied on students with significant life experience, the RCN warned.
“There are currently 52,000 nurses in NHS training with more to come”
On the other hand, the number of 18-year-olds receiving a placement has reached the highest level since 2009.
The statistics also reveal the ongoing gender disparity in the profession, with just one in every 11 nursing students so far this year being male.
The team behind The Student Nurse Project – a community of nursing students and newly qualified nurses – has reacted to the latest figures.
In a statement to Nursing Times, group members said: “As nursing students and newly qualified nurses, when we see that there are at least 40,000 nursing vacancies already in England’s healthcare services alone, we are very concerned about the constant pressures that we will find ourselves under and the dangers to safe and effective care for our patients.”
They added: “Whilst the bursary wasn’t perfect, its removal in England has clearly had an effect on the number of student nurses starting this September.”
“We implore the government looks into funding options, whether bursaries, or other financial relief in order to enable others into the profession and protect the future workforce of the NHS and patient safety,” the team said.
Dr Katerina Kolyva, executive director of the Council of Deans of Health, aired concerns about the drop in overall placed applicants, but drew positives from the figures such as the increase in 18-year-old students.
She added: “The recent campaigns to promote healthcare careers are an important first step but we need to see sustained and targeted action to encourage more people to enter healthcare professions.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “There are currently 52,000 nurses in NHS training with more to come thanks to our 25% increase in training places, and in a historic pay deal backed by the RCN we increased the starting salary of a nurse by £2,000 – helping us to recruit our NHS nurses of the future.”