Patient care will ‘continue to suffer’, according to the Royal College of Nursing, as the number of people applying for degrees in nursing across the UK fell by 19%.
New figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) show that the number of applicants to nursing courses in England is down 18% compared with the same point last year. By the January deadline, 27,370 people had applied to study nursing at course providers in England, compared with 33,410 at the same point last year.
The decline is worse in Scotland, where the number of applicants to study nursing starting this autumn fell by 24%. In Wales, applications have fallen by 22% and in Northern Ireland by 17%. Across the UK, there has been a 19% decline in applications made to UCAS compared with 2022.
RCN general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen said: “These figures are damning for the UK government. Not only are they losing record numbers of experienced nurses from the NHS, but they are compounding the problem by deterring the next generation.
“With tens of thousands of unfilled nurse jobs across the country, ministers should urgently consider a set of measures to turn this situation around. Nursing staff, today’s and tomorrow’s alike, need to know they are valued and that starts with fair pay. They must fund tuition fees and living costs for all nursing students.”
Nurses went on strike this week (6-7 February) in a continuing dispute over pay. Cullen described the fall in nursing degree applications as “deeply concerning” for the profession’s future. “During the pandemic, people were drawn to apply to study nursing by the professionalism that was showcased,” she added. “These figures show that has been reversed entirely. Ultimately, it is patient care that will continue to suffer.”
The figures show there has been a significant fall in the number of mature applicants to nursing courses, with UCAS polling on student attitudes showing that cost-of-living factors are making applicants re-evaluate their choice of subject based on value and future career prospects.
There was a sharp rise in the number of applicants to nursing courses during the pandemic, reaching a peak of 46,040 across the UK in 2021. Nursing degree applications are down 27% since then.
Applications to enrol on midwifery degree courses fell 22% to 8,910 in the UK compared to last year; this figure was less than pre-pandemic levels of 9,350 in 2020 and 9,040 in 2019.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We know the number of applicants was exceptionally high during the pandemic but there continues to be strong interest in nursing and midwifery careers, with applications above 2019 levels.
“For the third consecutive year, we have seen over 26,000 acceptances to undergraduate nursing and midwifery programmes and in 2022 there were 3,700 more acceptances compared to 2019 – a 16% increase.”
They added that NHS England will publish a long-term workforce plan this year focused on recruiting and retaining more staff.