The number of students starting nursing courses in the UK this academic year remains down 12% from last year towards the end of the clearing process.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) said 24,140 people had been accepted as a student nurse for 2023-24, down from 27,410 in 2022-23.
The country-level data showed a similar 12% decline in student nurse acceptances in England, from 21,490 in 2022-23 to 18,870 this year.
Scotland saw a worse decline of 14%, from 3,850 to 3,300, and in Wales there was a 13% drop from 1,210 to 1,050.
Northern Ireland was the only country to experience an increase, with numbers rising 4.5% from 880 to 920.
In England and Northern Ireland, student nurse numbers are higher than they were in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic.
The data is the final set to be released from UCAS from its clearing series, although people can still progress through clearing until 17 October.
The clearing process is where universities offer out their unfilled places to students who did not get placed during the initial acceptance period.
Data on A Level results day showed a 13% decline in student nurse acceptances across the UK, and applications this year were down 16%.
The UCAS figures exclude those training via degree nurse apprenticeships.
Royal College of Nursing deputy director for nursing, Dr Nichola Ashby, said the fall in acceptances was a bad sign for the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan.
The plan, released in June, is aiming to increase the number of student nurse intakes in England by 34% to reach 40,000 by 2028, with an increasing proportion trained through apprenticeships.
However, Dr Ashby said: “The UK Government has stumbled at the first hurdle of their NHS workforce plan, with 12% fewer people expected to take up nursing courses this year in England.
“These numbers are not just a sad story for today, but a story for years to come of how the ministers baked future nursing shortages into the NHS.
“If the NHS workforce plan is to succeed, the UK Government must start providing details on how the plan will begin to deliver the students the NHS needs to see for the future workforce.”
She urged the government to “remove the burden of student debt and tuition fees from prospective nurses”.
In England, student nurses must cover their tuition fees themselves, whereas those in the other UK countries can access free education through government bursaries.
Meanwhile, Eileen Mckenna, RCN Scotland associate director, described the drop in acceptances in Scotland a “real cause for concern amid the stubbornly high registered nurse vacancy rates and ongoing workforce challenges which are compromising patient safety and the wellbeing of staff”.
She said students in Scotland were also struggling with “significant financial pressures” amid the cost-of-living crisis, and that more support was needed for them.
Commenting on the England situation, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Nursing continues to be a rewarding career with thousands of people choosing to study nursing and midwifery every year.
“The latest acceptance numbers are still 5% higher than in 2019, following a surge of applications during the pandemic, with eligible students receiving a training grant of at least £5,000 a year.
“There will be more students coming through clearing eager to start careers in nursing, as well as those coming through apprenticeship routes.
“We’ve made significant progress in growing the workforce with record numbers of nurses working in the NHS and the first ever NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, backed by over £2.4 billion in government funding, will further boost education and training, as well as expanding apprenticeships and alternative routes into professional roles.”
Meanwhile, a Scottish Government spokesperson said recruitment and retention was a key remit of the country’s new Nursing and Midwifery Taskforce, and noted how nursing staff in Scotland are the best paid in the UK.
They added: “Applicants through UCAS can apply for up to five undergraduate programmes at a time and can, and do, apply to nursing and midwifery programmes over the summer as part of the annual clearing process.
“Once final data on acceptances into nursing programmes is known, this will be fed into the work of the taskforce.”