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Nursing courses: lower entry requirements to boost student numbers, Open University says

Study finds one in 20 places go unfilled 

Study finds one in 20 places go unfilled 


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Lowering entry requirements could help fill empty places on nursing degree courses in the UK, the Open University (OU) has suggested.

The OU said 91% of higher education institutions require the equivalent of three A-levels at or above C-grade for entry to nursing degree courses – even though the Nursing and Midwifery Council stipulates that only GCSE-level Maths and English (or equivalent) is required by the time a student completes their course. 

The university said this is ‘a significant blocker’ to widening participation in nursing, because it excludes individuals who may not have had access to the educational opportunities required to achieve those qualifications.

Empty seats

Data from 42 universities approached by the OU found one in 20 places unfilled at the start of the 2018-19 academic year. If filled, these places could generate an additional 1,446 UK nurses each year, the university said.  

An OU-commissioned survey of 1,000 young people who had considered studying nursing revealed that barriers such as money (33%), working hours (24%), perceived pressures (24%), travel (13%) entry requirements (11%) and third party advice (6%) prevented many from taking up places.

The OU suggested that if these barriers were lifted, 10,100 more nurses could be qualified in ten years' time.

Practical steps

The university recommended that universities and employers should:

  • Reconsider entry requirements to open up access to more individuals
  • Embrace technology-enabled learning such as offering lectures, materials and support online, so that people can learn when, how and where they want
  • Promote nursing as a career through local outreach and partnerships with schools and colleges
  • Take on more registered nurse degree apprenticeships

More flexibility

Council of Deans of Health chair Brian Webster-Henderson said: ‘Our members continue to innovate to widen participation.

‘University recruitment, which involves local employers, must take into account not only existing qualifications but also applicant values, functional English and maths skills, and commitment to the profession.

‘Universities are committed to filling places and growing the workforce through collaborative recruitment efforts and flexible provision – we must not, however, compromise on quality to meet these objectives.’

Ensuring patient safety

RCN head of learning and development Nichola Ashby said: ‘Nursing degrees demand academic skills but also practical skills that students learn from contact with professionals and peers. 

‘Nursing is a career like no other, and it takes the right values and ambition to succeed. Entry standards are rigorous because they have to be – it is what safe patient care demands.’

Critical action

OU head of school in the faculty of health, wellbeing and social care Sally Boyle said: ‘It is devastating that at a time when the healthcare sector is under enormous pressure there are so many people who are being deterred from pursuing a nursing career.

‘Something must be done to overcome the issues of under-subscription and trainee attrition.’

Government response

Responding to the report, a Department of Health (DH) spokesperson said it has introduced hardship funding to improve support for nurses in training.

They added that, as part of the NHS Long Term Plan, the DH had provided funding to increase nurse training places by a quarter.


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