RCN calls for urgent national campaign to boost student applicant numbers

Number of applicants for nursing student courses has fallen for a fourth year running

The number of applicants for nursing student courses has fallen for a fourth year running – five years after the Francis report called for more nurses.

Picture: Alamy

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the number of applicants fell, while in Scotland there was a modest increase, new Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) data has shown.

The figures show there were 39,140 UK applicants by the 15 January deadline for 2018 courses.

This is down from 43,590 applicants at the same point last year (2017) and 54,270 in 2016 – when the nursing student bursary was in place. This represents a 33% fall in applicants in two years.

As the figures were released, the RCN published a report into student numbers and called for a national campaign amid growing fears nursing courses will be undersubscribed this year.


Last year the Council of Deans of Health warned learning disability courses were undersubscribed and the Commons health committee last month said mental health nursing courses had also struggled to recruit.

The RCN now fear with a continued fall in applications and the removal of the nursing student bursary, more courses will be undersubscribed – heaping pressure on stretched services already dealing with 40,000 nursing vacancies.

Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) figures

  • The number of English applicants was 29,290 this year, as opposed to 33,810 last year and 43,800 in 2016.
  • Scottish applicant numbers rose slightly from 4,630 in 2017 to 4,820 this January.
  • The bursary remains in place in Scotland, as it does in Wales and Northern Ireland, but the latter countries saw a decline.
  • Welsh applicants fell from 2,640 last year to 2,590, while Northern Irish applicants fell from 2,510 to 2,350.
  • There are also 100 less applicants from the EU, but an increase of 50 non-EU nursing student applicants, between this year and last year.
  • EU nursing student applications peaked in 2013 at 1,680 but have since steadily declined in the nine-year period published by UCAS.

However, the overall number of applicants is traditionally much higher than the number of places available.

'Squandering the chance'

RCN general secretary Janet Davies said: ‘Five years after the warnings and lessons in the Mid Staffs report [into care failings], the government is still squandering the chance to address the issue – making care failings more likely, not less.

‘The government knows that when there aren’t enough nurses, patients can pay the highest price.

‘Nursing is now a graduate profession, but it lacks a graduate salary that compensates for the fees paid. With fair pay and other incentives, ministers must redouble efforts to get students into nursing courses this year.’

In its report, Left to Chance, the RCN calls for an urgent national campaign to boost numbers.

It wants:

• A Department of Health and Social Care budget to cover means-tested grants and incentivise students through writing off tuition fees.

• Greater incentives for graduates of other subjects and those already working in the NHS to convert to nursing with financial support.

• Government to cover the costs of the apprenticeship model to encourage greater uptake by NHS employers.

• Health Education England to develop a comprehensive and long-term workforce strategy.

• Safe staffing levels and accountability for planning and provision set in legislation in England and all UK nations.

• Continuing professional development (CPD) budgets for non-medical health care staff to be reinstated.

The government said removing the nursing student bursary would allow 10,000 more students to be trained, through tuition fee funding – but numbers in training fell last year.

Ministers also said new routes into nursing, such as degree apprenticeships, would boost numbers, but just 30 apprentices started courses in 2017.

The RCN and Commons health committee suggest apprenticeship routes are hampered by employers’ funding concerns.

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