Fall in nursing applicants 'linked to end of NHS bursary'

Poor workforce planning causing instability across the NHS, report states.

Poor workforce planning causing instability across the NHS, report states

Fall in student numbers calls expansion of nurse workforce into question. Picture: iStock

Scrapping bursaries for nursing students in England has caused a key ‘pressure point’ for NHS workforce planning, a health charity report states.

The Health Foundation says NHS workforce planning is not fit for purpose, leading to high staff turnover and instability across the service.

The report highlights a 1,200 fall in the number of people applying for undergraduate nursing courses starting this year – after the bursary was abolished on 1 August in favour of loans and tuition fees. It claims poor implementation of the funding changes and communication by the government have contributed to a fall in applications.

Standardise attrition monitoring

The report says there is a need to monitor attrition rates on nursing courses in a systematic way. It cites a recent investigation by Nursing Standard that revealed one in four UK nursing students drop out before completing their studies.

‘Despite repeated calls for a standard analytical definition of attrition across the UK and a transparent approach to publishing attrition rates on each course and each institution, the only recent publicly available national source of comparative attrition data is a survey conducted by Nursing Standard, following a freedom of information request,’ the report states.

‘It will be important to monitor attrition rates to assess if the shift to a loan-based approach in England has any impact on completion rates, but this process will be hampered by a lack of common definition of attrition and an absence of transparency in the current reporting process.’

Mature students' drop-out rate

The Health Foundation also says mature students are more likely to drop out, and criticised a lack of focus on the specific needs of older nursing students.

Commenting on the report, RCN general secretary Janet Davies said: 'The reduction in students begs the question of how the promised expansion in nurse numbers in the future can be achieved.

'The drop in the number of nurses this year is deeply worrying, and particularly damaging when nurses are having to cope with rising numbers of patients.'

The report also highlights wider concerns, including:

  • The number of full-time equivalent nurses and health visitors dropped by 469 between April 2016 and 2017 – an overall decline of 0.2%.
  • The biggest reductions in numbers were in mental health and community nursing.
  • Rising hospital admissions and falling nurse numbers risk overstretching nurses and undermining progress made since the Francis report into failings at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust in 2013.

A Department of Health spokesperson said there had been an increase in funding for clinical placements for nursing students announced in August this year, and insisted there was a ‘clear plan in place to ensure the NHS remains a rewarding and attractive place to work’.

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