Student attrition: why do nursing students leave their course before completion?

Call for strategy to get to grips with reasons for leaving and help tackle nurse vacancies

Call for strategy to get to grips with reasons for leaving and help tackle nurse vacancies

A young woman sitting studying at a computer, with other students in the background
Picture: iStock

One in four nursing students are still failing to complete their degree programmes, despite recent government efforts to reduce the drop-out rate.

For the fourth consecutive year, a Nursing Standard investigation has found that almost a quarter of UK nursing students on recently concluded three-year programmes left their studies before graduation – 24% of the 19,158 in the 2016-17 cohort.

‘The future workforce needs to be better supported’

Broken down across the UK, the attrition rate was 25% in England, 23% in Scotland, 12% in Wales and 10% in Northern Ireland.

RCN director for England Mike Adams said common reasons nursing students give for leaving university include financial pressures, increasing workloads and getting to grips with placements.

‘These students are the future of the workforce and they need to be better supported or we risk losing them,’ he said.

In 2015, the Department of Health instructed training body Health Education England (HEE) to halve the student attrition rate in England; the Reducing Pre-Registration attrition and Improving Retention (RePAIR) project was set up to achieve this.

The RePAIR report published by HEE in 2018 recommended creating a standard definition of attrition across all healthcare programmes in England to aid workforce planning. But two years on, no single accepted definition exists.

Infographic showing figures relating to nursing student attrition across the UK in the three years to 2019
Find out more: RePAIR project survey

Reducing student attrition key to tackling nurse vacancies

Health Foundation director of research Anita Charlesworth said the high numbers of students not completing their full-time nursing degrees is worrying when the nursing workforce is so stretched by the pandemic.

‘Reducing attrition is key to tackling high vacancy rates, with the NHS in England alone having a nursing vacancy rate of over 10% in June.

She called for ‘a robust coordinated strategy’ to recruit and retain nurses and for better understanding of factors underlying attrition.

United approach to measuring attrition

Asked about its progress following the RePAIR report, HEE told Nursing Standard it was working closely with the Higher Education Statistics Agency and Office for Students to align approaches to measuring attrition in England.

HEE chief nurse Mark Radford said the latest estimate for attrition among nursing students due to complete courses in March next year was 16-19%, but declined to share the how the figure was arrived at.

Professor Radford said: ‘The cultural change RePAIR programme continues to support preregistration nursing students, higher education institutions and healthcare provider organisations to ensure the student experience is a positive one.’

How we gathered the data

Nursing Standard asked UK universities to provide start and completion data for nursing students who began three-year degree programmes in 2016-17 and were due to graduate at the end of 2018-19.

The data were collected through Freedom of Information requests sent to universities via email on 4 August 2020.

Out of 90 universities that offer nursing degree programmes, 56 responded with data. Those responding included 44 universities in England, four in Wales, six in Scotland and two in Northern Ireland.

Findings were analysed by Nursing Standard staff.

Nursing Standard has been collecting this information since 2006 and annually since 2017.