Fears potential mature nursing students are being put off by fees

About 6,000 fewer mature students have applied to start nursing courses this coming autumn compared with last year.

About 6,000 fewer mature students have applied to start nursing courses this coming autumn compared with last year

Mature students bring life skills to the job. Picture: Getty Images

With the end of bursaries for nursing students in England a matter of weeks away, academics have told Nursing Standard of the need to ensure mature students are not put off by funding changes.

About 6,000 fewer mature students have applied to start nursing courses this coming autumn compared with last year.

Figures from the university admissions service UCAS show a 28% drop in the number of over-25s applying in England.


the wage at which nurses will start paying back their student loan

For critics of the government’s plans to cut the bursary from August and apply fees of up to £9,000 a year, this is the fallout they feared for a profession that is already short-staffed.

This year, 15,610 mature students applied across the UK, compared with 21,060 last year, while overall nursing degree applications fell by 19%.

Deterred by changes

The biggest falls were seen in England, where applications from all age groups fell by 23%. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are all retaining the bursary for at least another year, there were smaller drops of 10%, 2% and 6% respectively.

RCN general secretary Janet Davies said applicants with young families had been deterred by the changes, and she was concerned that mental health and learning disability nursing, which traditionally recruit more mature students, could be particularly affected.

But the Department of Health is confident that application rates will recover. ‘Student contributions to university costs have changed on three previous occasions, and every time there has been an immediate dip in application rates followed by a steady rise,’ a spokesperson said.

Period of unrest

The decline in applicants comes amid a period of unrest in the profession, with intense workload pressures, predictions of a 42,000 shortfall of nurses by 2020, and political uncertainty due to the general election and Brexit.

New routes into nursing are being introduced: nursing degree apprenticeships will see students work as paid healthcare assistants during their courses, while the new, regulated nursing associate role will sit below nursing.

Head of the adult nursing department at Birmingham City University Kevin Crimmons says that while these roles are attractive to mature students, the number of places available on the new routes is not sufficient to account for the drop in applicants for the traditional courses.


decline in applications from students aged over 25


The university generally has high rates of mature students, but has noticed a decline in applicants, especially those aged over 25, similar to that seen across the country.

‘We are reaching out to further education colleges to talk to mature students and reassure them that we do understand what is it is like in their position, and ensure as best as possible that they get the same opportunities as their younger counterparts,’ he says. ‘It is demystifying what it means.'

While application numbers are down, the quality is up, he says, and the university is confident of filling all places.

Standard of applicants

‘The standard of applicants is much higher, not just in academic qualifications but the ability to demonstrate a motivation for nursing,’ he says. ‘It has really distilled the people with a burning passion to help people, so it is not all bad.

‘My disappointment is for the mature students who didn’t get the chance to do what they wanted the first time around and then they worked really hard at an access to education course. They need to be able to get the opportunity – they make brilliant nurses and enrich the university.’

Mr Crimmons hopes that mature applicant numbers will climb again after the uncertainty of the first year of these changes.


decline in applicants across all age groups


Kings College London professor of nursing policy Anne Marie Rafferty says she is particularly concerned that graduates will be deterred, but that it is too early to tell the full impact, as the rate of places offered to those taken could be different under the new system.

‘The position of graduates is of particular concern, since they are also asset-rich in life skills and experience, which is perceived as a plus by employers,’ Professor Rafferty says.

‘Taking on a double dose of debt will doubtless act as a deterrent for some, and I am not aware of many incentives that universities can offer at the moment beyond access to hardship funds or bespoke scholarship schemes.’

Loss to profession

The bursary was an essential source of financial support when Francesca Elner decided to study adult nursing at the age of 33. Ms Elner, who qualified last September from Bangor University in North Wales, says even with this funding, and not having to pay fees, she still has a student loan of £22,000 to repay.

Now working as an emergency nurse in Wrexham, she says she cannot imagine having another £30,000 debt on top of that loan.

‘I would never have paid that back on a nursing wage,’ she says. ‘If there hadn’t been funding in place to keep us going, I wouldn’t have been able to do the course.’

Ms Elner, a mother of three, decided to train as a nurse after working as a science teacher and in accounting. She says her life experience before the career change has helped her as a nurse.

‘If the decline of mature applicants was to continue it would be a massive loss to the profession.

‘As a mature student, you bring life skills to the job which are unparalleled. It would be awful and a travesty to lose that.’

Nursing degrees in England: the costs

From August, rather than getting an NHS grant, all nursing and midwifery students in England will need to take out maintenance and tuition loans like other students. Nursing students will have to pay standard course fees of up to £9,000 a year.

Eligible students may be able to access a non-repayable grant of up to £1,000 per year if they have young children, exceptional support of up to £3,000 for cases of ‘severe hardship’, and support for excess travel and dual accommodation expenses incurred when attending practice placements. There is also a childcare allowance.

Many universities will offer some form of scholarship or bursary to students.

Graduates become liable to begin paying back their loans in the April after they graduate, and will need to pay 9% of their earnings over £21,000 a year. 


This article is for subscribers only