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Nursing UCAS applications fall for third year running

The number of people applying for nursing courses at university in the UK has fallen for the third year in a row.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) reported today that, despite an overall increase in university applications, 7% fewer people applied for nursing courses ahead of the January 2024 deadline than the same time last year.

“A decline in applicants risks causing a cascading effect”

Pat Cullen

A total of 31,100 people applied for nursing courses at a UK provider, compared to 33,570 in 2023, 41,220 in 2022 and 46,040 in 2021. The 2024 figures represented a 7% decrease compared to last year and a 32.5% decrease since 2021.

Applications to England fell by 10% from last year, and 8% in Scotland.

In Northern Ireland, applications also decreased, by 5% (from 2,380 in 2023 to 2,260 this year).

However, UCAS reported an 8% increase in Wales from 2,820 to 3,050 applications.

Driving the overall 2024 reduction in large part, UCAS said, was a significant decrease (of 10%) in mature student applications compared to 2023.

UCAS reported that nursing applications had decreased across all specialties but “particularly adult nursing and mental health nursing”.

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The number of people applying for nursing courses in the UK has trended downward ever since the spike in applications in 2021, which followed the increased profile the profession received during the Covid-19 emergency period.

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) chief executive and general secretary Pat Cullen described the fall in applications as a “collapse”, and called for the UK Government to put “emergency measures” in place.

She asked the government in England to cover tuition fees for all student nurses, introduce loan forgiveness for registered nurses working in the NHS and reintroduce maintenance grants for nursing students.

In a letter to health and social care secretary Victoria Atkins, Ms Cullen aired “deep concern” over nursing recruitment in general because of the fall in applications.

“Failure to address these critical issues will make the ambitions set out in the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan unattainable, leaving the health care system dangerously understaffed and unable to meet the growing demands of patients,” wrote Ms Cullen.

“These latest figures expose a widening gap between the aspirations of the plan and the level of political effort required to make them a reality. This needs immediate intervention and corrective action to protect patients now and in the future.

“A decline in applicants risks causing a cascading effect, with fewer students accepted onto nursing courses leading to diminished course cohorts and eventually lower numbers graduating and becoming registered nurses.”

The RCN leader demanded the government take immediate action to improve nursing recruitment, and said the union “stands ready” to work with the government to help ensure sustainable nursing recruitment.

Pat Cullen speaking at RCN Congress 2023

Pat Cullen

She added: “We believe the current situation poses a direct threat to the sustainability of the NHS and patient safety, considering the existing 10.3% vacancy rate in nursing positions within the NHS in England.

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“It is well evidenced that nursing numbers directly impact patient outcomes; higher ratios of registered nurses to patients on shift leads to reduced lengths of stay and improved mortality. The consistent decline in the number of nursing students marks a pressing patient safety concern.

“We urge you to tackle this issue head on and work with the RCN and other stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan that effectively addresses the nursing recruitment crisis.

Eileen McKenna, associate director for the RCN’s Scotland national branch, shared Ms Cullen’s worries, calling on the devolved Scottish Government to also take action to address the decline.

Saffron Cordery, NHS Providers deputy chief executive, said trust leaders in England were “extremely worried” by the drop.

“Operational pressures and challenges including wider unresolved industrial disputes impact retention and morale, so there is concern that staffing gaps could widen further,” she said.

“The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan is a welcome blueprint to shore up staff numbers, but without adequate measures to ensure the NHS remains attractive to both future and existing staff, it risks amounting to nothing more than a pipedream.

“We look forward to the government providing detail on how it will fund and implement the plan so that the NHS can plan effectively, ensuring it has the right resources in place to meet evolving healthcare needs.”

NHS Employers director of development and employment Caroline Waterfield echoed Ms Cordery’s concerns.

Ms Waterfield also pointed to the concerning downward trend in the context of the ambitious increases in student places outlined in the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan.

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“It is therefore really concerning that the data shows us the number of people applying to mental health and adult nursing courses is lower, as are applications from older candidates,” she said.

“We know from recent history that the introduction of the £5,000 grant to support university students has had a positive impact on students’ experience.

“We also know that additional funding for employers to support the growth of the nurse degree apprenticeship has made a difference to the numbers who could be supported through this route.”

She joined the calls for government intervention. In particular, Ms Waterfield called on the current – and any future – government to commit to the full funding and delivery of the workforce plan.

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