Second rise in student nurse applications ‘very encouraging’

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By Gemma Mitchell

Interest in studying nursing in England has increased for the second year running but the damage caused by the removal of the bursary is still being felt, new figures suggest.

Data released today by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) showing applications are continuing on an upward trajectory have been welcomed as “very encouraging”.

“Would-be nurses are still being put off by the requirement to pay tuition fees”

Donna Kinnair

By the main final deadline of 15 January, 35,960 people had applied to a nursing programme in England, which is a rise of 6% from the same time last year (34,030), and 10% from 2018 (32,580).

However, the number of applicants is still down 25% from 48,230 in 2016 – the last year student nurses’ tutition fees were covered by the government – and 37,380 in 2017.

Nationally the data tells a similar story.

A total of 48,580 people had applied to a nursing course in either England, Wales or Scotland by the January deadline in 2020, compared with 46,050 in 2019 and 44,240 in 2018.

At the same point in 2016, 61,020 people had submitted an application.

The Royal College of Nursing has urged a degree of caution about the headline figures because although they are labelled “nursing” applicants by UCAS this covers a broad range of courses.

The education body confirmed to Nursing Times that the data featured under its B7 nursing course code includes other “related” programmes such as midwifery and dental nursing.

The actual number of people studying to become a registered nurse is believed to be around 18-20% lower than the publicly released data.

Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said the number of potential new nurses was still “way below” what was needed to meet demand and fill vacancies.

“Today’s small increase in interest is positive but these figures should really focus minds – decisive action is needed, and with relative urgency, to rise to the scale of the challenge,” she added.

“Would-be nurses are still being put off by the requirement to pay tuition fees and the prospect of a lifetime of student debt.

“A clear level of ambition was set late last year and nursing courses are yet to see a surge in interest. All the while, record numbers of nurse jobs are unfilled and patient safety is compromised.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party won the general election at the end of last year having made a promise to secure “50,000 more nurses” by 2024-25.

To boost interest, the Tories have made a partial U-turn on their decision to scrap funding support for student nurses by introducing a new maintenance grant, which comes into effect in September.

In light of the new applicant figures, Dame Donna is calling on the government to go further.

She urged the chancellor to use his upcoming budget to “provide tuition fee funding for nursing courses and living grants that reflect genuine student living costs”.

The increase in student applications was welcomed by leaders at the Council of Deans of Health, which represents UK faculties of nursing, midwifery and allied health professions.

“The hard work, skill and compassion of nurses keeps our NHS running”

Matt Hancock

Executive director Dr Katerina Kolyva said: “This increase is very encouraging and we look forward to continued collaboration to ensure that we have the future healthcare workforce that the country needs.”

Professor Brian Webster-Henderson, chair of the council, added that it “particularly” welcomed the growth in the number of mature students, who were the hardest hit by the bursary reform.

In 2016, 22,750 people aged 25 or over applied to a nursing course in the UK.

After plummeting to 14,760 in 2018, the number picked up to 15,370 last year and now stands at 17,230.

Professor Webster-Henderson added: “The recent introduction of maintenance grants in England is playing an important role in promoting the value of healthcare courses and giving people the confidence to apply knowing that the financial support is there.”

The number of people applying to study nursing in the UK from countries in the European Union has risen slightly for the second year running following a large fall after the Brexit vote.

Interest from hopeful international student nurses outside the EU is also at its highest level since 2016, according to the UCAS data.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “The hard work, skill and compassion of nurses keeps our NHS running and it’s fantastic to see the number of people applying to study nursing in England rise for the second year running.

“These applicants are the nurses of the future. We are determined to deliver our commitment of 50,000 more nurses in the NHS – and this rise in applications is just the start.