UCAS data shows 10% fall in students joining nursing courses

The number of people accepted onto undergraduate nursing courses in the UK has fallen by 10% since last year, according to latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

For the 2023 academic year, which started in September, 26,330 nursing student applicants were accepted onto their courses in what is the lowest successful admissions for the degree since 2019.

“The government’s NHS Long Term Workforce Plan is falling off course before it’s even begun”

Nichola Ashby

This figure represents a 10% decrease on 2022, when there were 29,440 successful applicants, and a 19% decrease since the 2020 academic year, when a boom in interest from Covid-19 saw the figure at 32,575.

The data is from the UCAS ‘end of cycle’ count, which follows several previous releases of provisional data on nursing course numbers.

Provisional figures from September – before clearing ended – indicated a decline of around 12% and earlier data suggested applications were down by 16% on 2022.

Intakes for nursing decreased in each of the UK’s devolved nations, the new UCAS data showed. In contrast, midwifery increased by 2%, medicine by 10%, and dentistry by 15%.

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The decrease in interest for nursing came just six months after the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan set an ambitious target of almost doubling the combined nursing and midwifery training intakes from 40,400 in 2022 to 72,400 by the 2031-32 academic year.

The Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) deputy chief nurse, Dr Nichola Ashby, said the UCAS figures showed the NHS workforce plan was “falling off course before it’s even begun”.

Dr Ashby said: “For the plan to succeed, we need to see significant increases in the numbers choosing to study nursing and we’re going in the wrong direction.

“Nursing is one of the greatest professions anyone can join but students are being put off by low wages, high debt, and incredibly pressurised working environments.

“With tens of thousands of vacancies already in the NHS, we can’t afford more would-be nurses to choose other career paths,” she said.

“Our health services are in crisis, but the government staunchly refuses to invest in the nursing workforce to bring the NHS back from the brink – while the social care sector suffers just as severely.”

Speaking specifically about the 10.8% fall in successful applicants for Scottish providers, RCN Scotland associate director Eileen Mckenna said she was “extremely” worried.

The Scottish Government’s intake target for pre-registration nursing courses for 2023 was 4,536. The UCAS data showed a total of 3,520 successful nursing applicants joined nursing undergraduate courses.

However, these figures do not include apprenticeships and some Open University applicants.

“Scotland doesn’t have the nursing workforce it needs today and the failure to fill university places means the future is looking even more challenging,” said Ms Mckenna.

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She called for more to be done to support people wanting to join the profession and suggested that financial barriers were among the reasons for the lower applicant numbers in Scotland.

She pointed to an RCN Scotland survey on student finances, in which 99% of respondents said they had some level of worry about money and 74% that it was having a high or very high impact on their mental health.

Ms Mckenna said: “Nursing is a fantastic career choice, full of variety and opportunity. However, being a nurse should not be at the expense of your personal wellbeing and financial security.

“The Scottish Government must demonstrate that nursing is valued and a career worth pursuing,” she said. “They need to ensure that current and future nursing students get improved financial support.”

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