Exclusive: One in four nursing students not finishing degrees

A quarter of nursing students in the UK quit their university course before they qualified, according to a special investigation by Nursing Standard.

One in four UK nursing students quit their university course before completing it, according to a Nursing Standard investigation.

A Nursing Standard investigation found that more than 4,000 nursing students
left their university course before completing it. Picture: iStock

It costs universities an average of £27,798 to train a pre-registration nursing student over a three-year programme, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

But data obtained by Nursing Standard reveals that of 17,055 nursing students who began three-year degrees due to finish in 2016, some 4,284 left their courses without completing, or suspended their studies.

Attrition rate

This gives a UK-wide average attrition rate of 25.1%, showing that the problem has remained static for a decade. A Nursing Standard investigation of 2006 put the attrition rate then at 26.3%.

In this latest investigation, some courses had a dropout rate as high as 46%, while the lowest was 4.9%.

Some institutions pointed out that students could ‘step on and step off’ their degree course and complete their studies during a longer time frame, which was not reflected in the data they provided. 

The RCN said reasons for leaving included poor experience in clinical settings, financial problems and academic pressures.

Emotionally draining

RCN professional lead for education Gill Coverdale said nursing degrees could be emotionally draining.

She pointed out that the split between academic study and clinical placements necessitated long hours for students.

‘Nursing is a challenging profession and some students realise it is not the profession for them,’ Ms Coverdale added. ‘It is a hard programme.’

There have long been concerns about the lack of a standardised recording of attrition rates. The most up-to-date figures from official sources put attrition at 13-20% in England, 26% in Scotland, 10.3% in Wales and 5.7% in Northern Ireland.


Last year in England, the Department of Health instructed Health Education England to reduce dropout rates on healthcare courses by 50% by 2017.

Nursing Standard requested attrition data from the 70 universities approved by the Nursing and Midwifery Council to run nursing degrees. Of these, a handful did not run nursing courses during 2013-16 and a few others could not provide figures.

But 62 universities returned data, revealing a significant gap between the number of students starting courses and those finishing them.

A Scottish Government spokesperson the overall picture was improving.

Monitor and manage

‘These rates vary across universities for a number of reasons and NHS Education Scotland works with institutions to monitor, manage and improve them.’

A Northern Ireland department of health spokesperson said it monitored attrition annually, pointing out: ‘Northern Ireland continues to have lower attrition than the average across the UK.’

A Welsh government spokesperson said: ‘We monitor attrition with each university as part of our contract meetings that focus on performance.’

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