A quarter of all student nurses quit the profession before they have even qualified, a recent survey showed.
Financial difficulties, lack of childcare support and bad experiences on the ward were all cited as contributing factors to the high drop-out rate, costing the NHS an estimated £57m a year.
Out of 19,995 nursing students in 83 institutions studying between 2000 and 2004, a total of 4,956 (24.8%) dropped out, according to Nursing Standard magazine.
The study conflicts with government figures, which state that around 14% of trainee nurses leave their courses early.
Conservative Party health spokesman Andrew Lansley said: “The NHS depends critically on a constant supply of newly-qualified nurses. These figures highlight the appalling waste of motivated students.”
Most student nurses left during their first year of training, at an estimated cost of £11,479 per nurse, amounting to losses of up to £57m.
Susan Watt, student adviser at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “It’s time to look seriously at this issue. It is also a waste of people resources. It’s a lost opportunity for great nurses.”
But health minister Lord Warner said the figures were “rough estimates” and did not show the real picture.
“Since 1997, we have seen big increases in the numbers of new staff joining the NHS, taking up university places to study for a healthcare profession as well as returners to nursing, midwifery, radiography and other career groups,” he said.
“We have been working hard to make sure that all the extra nurses we’ve recruited stay in training and in work – for example, by offering additional support to student nurses for the costs of childcare since April 2005, and improving pay, conditions and access to flexible working for those already working in the NHS.”
Nursing leaders have warned that the number of nursing students needs to double to replace those who will retire in the next 10 years.