Expert advice

We need more university places to boost the number of nurses

There was a small increase in students joining nursing courses this year, but we are still not recruiting enough

There was a small increase in students joining nursing courses this year, but we are still not recruiting enough

As well as reducing attrition more nursing places must be created Picture: iStock

The latest data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) shows a small increase in the number of new nursing students accepted onto courses compared to last year.

Interim data from mid-August shows that the number of applicants placed on nursing degree courses at UK universities was 21,870 this year, around 4% higher than at the same point in 2018.

Failing to reach the required numbers

The number of confirmed applicants from England was up by about 3% on last year - from 15,490 to 16,010 – while in Scotland, which has retained the bursary, there was an increase of more than 6%, from 2,870 in 2018 to 3,060 this year.

Although some progress has been made, it is not at the pace required to fix the nursing shortage.

Data on attrition rates is even less positive: an analysis by Nursing Standard and the Health Foundation shows that, on average, one in four nursing students (24%) in the UK do not complete their course on time, with a higher drop-out rate for learning disability nursing students.

The national attrition rate last year was 24.7%, so no real improvement there.

Increasing the number of nursing places at university 

But rather than obsessing about annual application rates and engaging in a sterile debate about marginal year-on-year changes in the rates of acceptances, we need to acknowledge that the UK has - and is - falling way short of meeting its own demand for nurses. 

Even with the increasing reliance on international recruitment there are still 40,000 unfilled NHS nursing posts in England, and Scotland’s NHS nursing staff vacancies have more than doubled in the past five years.

Not all applicants to nursing courses will be suitable, and it's important that potential nursing students have the right attributes and academic qualifications appropriate for a graduate-level programme.

But while the UK is struggling to ramp up the number of desperately needed nursing students, there continues to be more applicants than available places on nursing courses this year.

Improving attrition rates is obviously important, but so is increasing the overall number of funded places for undergraduate nurses.

Put simply: to achieve ‘more bums on seats’, we need more seats.

James Buchan is professor in the faculty of health and social sciences at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh


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