Universities speak out on fall in degree applications

​In the face of reductions in applications for nursing degree programmes, universities in England are working harder than ever to address the challenges.

Applications for nursing degree programmes in England have fallen significantly in the past year, with the government set to scrap bursaries from August 2017

The number of applications for nursing degree courses has dropped by more than 10,000. 

New data from the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) shows a 23% drop in the number of applicants making at least once choice for a nursing course in England.

The figure fell from 43,800 in January 2016 to 33,810 in January this year, with shortfalls in applications from mature students particularly evident.

Last July the government confirmed it would scrap bursary funding for nursing students and replace it with loans, beginning in August this year. The RCN says the latest UCAS figures ‘confirmed its worst fears’.

The college says it consistently warned the government that removing the bursary would result in decreased applications.

Complex issue

Yet, with applications to all higher education courses down by 5%, not everyone agrees the new funding model was to blame. 

Canterbury Christ Church University dean of Health and Wellbeing Debra Teasdale argues the previous funding model for nursing courses was unsustainable.

‘Resources for universities to provide the programmes had not been sufficient,’ she says.


drop in applicants making at least once choice for a nursing course in England

‘When we looked at student retention and attrition, there was often a financial reason for students withdrawing.

Variety of influences 

‘The issue cannot be looked at in isolation and purely attributed to funding changes, as there are so many issues influencing students’ behaviour.’

Ms Teasdale says the uncertainty caused by Brexit, as well as students interacting differently with UCAS this year, were important contributing factors.

She also emphasises that universities are open to applicants ‘right the way through the year’, and that UCAS deadlines are not necessarily the last opportunity for entry to a course.

‘We as a university, and many others, will continue to recruit right up to the day the course begins.’

‘To be expected’

Council of Deans of Health chair Dame Jessica Corner says fewer applications are to be expected in the first year of changes to student funding.

Professor Corner says: ‘We would expect this to pick up in future years. This also comes in the context of a reduction in applications to higher education across all subjects, and the introduction of alternative routes into health careers, such as the nursing associate and registered nurse apprenticeship programmes.

‘Our members report receiving a high number of good quality applications for most courses and they will continue to recruit through to the summer.’

Campaign needed

Staffordshire University dean in the school of life sciences and education Nigel Thomas says work is needed to promote the value and employability of courses such as nursing.


fall in applications to all higher education courses in England.

‘In previous eras up to 70% of our adult nursing programmes were mature students. Our evidence is that mature students are being hit the hardest. We could really do with a positive promotion of health careers.’

Dr Thomas suggests a government-led campaign to promote health careers, and to ensure potential students understand how loan repayments would work.

More money available

‘On a £21,000 salary, repayments work out to about £5 a month,’ he said.

‘Students should not be put off by concerns over funding, particularly given chances of employability in this area.’

Bournemouth University deputy dean for education and professional practice Elizabeth Rosser argues that dips in applications and ‘bums on seats’ are not necessarily interchangeable.

‘The dips are not insignificant,’ says Professor Rosser. ‘I am not diminishing the concern everybody has, not least employers, who three years on might see a dip in prospective staff.

‘But we are trying to get the message out to trusts and employers that there will be more money available to students through the loan system.’

In some places, such as Plymouth University, programmes appear to be unaffected. 

A Plymouth University spokesperson says wider trends of applications falling for nursing degrees were not being felt at the institution.

‘That is of course not to say we don’t appreciate there may be challenges,’ the spokesperson says. 

August 2017

bursaries for nursing and midwifery students in England replaced with loans and tuition fees.

‘We also think the changes may present opportunities and we will be continuing to look at ways we can invest in our nursing and midwifery programmes.’

Extra places

A King’s College London spokesperson says it ‘remains to be seen’ what the eventual impact of fees will be on undergraduate nursing programmes.

‘It is essential that the government continues to monitor overall application numbers and respond to any downturns in particular areas and across the board,’ the spokesperson says. 

The government has claimed ending the bursaries would create 10,000 extra nurse training places.

A Department of Health spokesperson says: ‘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.

‘We are confident nursing courses will follow a similar trend and are certain we will have all the student nurses the NHS needs by September.’

What the universities say 

‘For 2017-18 we will fill our September places first, after which time we will decide whether or not the February 2018 intake is viable.’  - University of Brighton

‘We have revalidated our programmes to enable us to offer flexible routes that we hope will prove to be more attractive to mature applicants. We are hopeful the nursing associate programme and apprenticeship routes will in the future support recruitment onto the nursing programmes.’  - University of Chester

‘We eschew judgements based on one year of data. The evidence from 2012, when tuition and loan arrangements changed for the bulk of undergraduates, was that it was a poor predictor of applicant demand in subsequent years.’  - Edge Hill University

‘We are continuing to promote the positive opportunities that health careers in nursing and midwifery offer to a diverse range of potential applicants.’  - University of the West of England

‘Healthcare is going through a real evolutionary phase at the moment with the introduction of sustainability and transformation plans. In the last year we redesigned all pre-registration health programmes, supporting aspirations for integrated working.’  - Canterbury Christ Church University

Nurses have their say on Nursing Standard’s Facebook page 

Lauren Asker: ‘It's obvious numbers are going to drop, especially without a bursary. I, and all of the nurses I speak to, would not have done the course without funding. That’s also why, years ago, people chose the diploma instead of the degree. I don’t blame people for not wanting to train. When a qualified nurse is only getting a few hundred pounds more than a healthcare assistant, is it really worth the stress, the grief and the constant tiredness?’

Sharon Carruthers: ‘Why would you study for three years, work on a ward without pay, accumulate huge student debt for the misery of a starting salary of £21,000? I am a nurse myself, my 18-year-old daughter is starting her training in September, and I wouldn’t discourage her because nursing is a rewarding job. I do feel we’re respected and valued by the public we serve, but not so much by the government.’

Christine Bond: ‘No bursary. Low wage. NHS underfunded and undervalued by government. So no wonder! I was a retired.’

Stephanie McManus: ‘Not surprised at all. I’m also a nurse but have given up my nursing career.’

Zoe Giles: ‘I'm starting my nursing degree this April. I can’t wait to start but I'm so worried (already!) about how I will afford to support three young children and pay my mortgage. The prospect of doing this type of degree and having to also work a part-time job is scary.’

Penny Jane: ‘I love my job, but considering the pay, working conditions and workload that we are expected to take on, it’s no surprise that there is a fall in applications.’

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