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Nursing student numbers fall for the second year running

Reform of nurse student funding appears to be failing to boost numbers of students and healthcare staff

Reform of nurse student funding appears to be failing in its target to boost numbers of students and healthcare staff

Exam results
A level results were revealed today, but the fall in nursing student numbers is a worrying trend.
Picture: Alamy

Nursing student numbers have fallen for the second year running since the government cut the NHS bursary in England, according to new figures from UCAS.

On the same day A level students across the country received their results, the RCN warned the fall in student numbers further jeopardised the future supply of nurses, putting safe patient care at risk.

According to the UCAS figures:

  • In England, there has been a 4% fall in the total number of nursing students placed on courses, compared to last year.
  • Similarly, there has been an 11% drop in nursing students placed in England since 2016, the last year of bursary funding.
  • There has been a 16% drop (from 7,450 to 6,260) in mature students in England, since 2016. 
  • Across the four UK countries, there has been an overall 2% drop in nursing student numbers, compared to last year, and an 8% drop since 2016.
  • UK-wide, there has been a 9% fall in the number of mature nursing students compared to last year, and a 10% drop since 2016.

Falling behind its target

From 1 August 2017 nursing students were no longer eligible for bursary funding and instead became subject to a tuition fees and loans system, in line with other university subjects.

Ministers argued their reform of nurse student funding, announced in 2015, was a way to boost student places and increase the number of trainees in England. 

But the lower student numbers show this goal has not been achieved and now government has fallen further behind its target of 10,000 extra nurses and allied healthcare professionals taking up placements in England by 2020. 

'Managed decline'

RCN director of nursing policy and practice Donna Kinnair said: 'Ministers’ decisions on student funding have left nursing in "managed decline".

'Today’s figures should be the wake-up call the government needs to properly address the staffing crisis that’s putting safe and effective patient care at risk. 

'It is time to stop tinkering around the edges – the government’s ad hoc approach is clearly not working.

'We urgently need comprehensive workforce plans that safeguard recruitment and retention, and responds to patient need in each country – this should include a range of incentives to attract more nursing students. 

'Although we will see additional students placed through clearing in the coming weeks, today’s figures mean fewer nurses will enter our understaffed healthcare system in three years’ time, further jeopardising patient care.'

Wider staffing crisis

The reduction in nursing students could leave specialist areas worst hit by the wider staffing crisis – such as district nursing, learning disability and mental health nursing – struggling even further to recruit. 

These areas rely on students with significant life experience – but with fewer mature students due to start in September, today’s figures mean staffing levels could fall further.

In addition to those placed on courses UK-wide, a further 7,960 students have a holding (conditional) offer and 14,540 are free to be placed in clearing.

UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant said: 'I’d advise anyone thinking about securing a place through clearing to take some time to visit universities and colleges in the next few days.

'This weekend’s open days are listed on the UCAS website. Seeing everything in person can help you make the right decision.'

'Results aren't everything'

Nurses also took to social media to reassure students who may not have achieved the necessary grades.

University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust associate director of nursing wrote on Instagram that 'results aren't everything.'

He wrote: 'Not an A level to my name, so grab the opportunities, keep going, enjoy [and] look after yourself.'

Further information

UCAS: Statistical releases – daily Clearing analysis 2018


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