Decline in UK Nursing Student Enrollment Amidst Ongoing NHS Staffing Shortages

The enrollment of students in nursing courses for the current academic year in the UK remains 12% lower than the previous year as the clearing process nears its end.

According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), 24,140 individuals have been admitted as student nurses for the 2023-24 academic year, a decrease from 27,410 in the 2022-23 academic year.

Looking at specific regions, England experienced a similar 12% reduction in student nurse admissions, declining from 21,490 in 2022-23 to 18,870 this year. Scotland saw a more substantial decline of 14%, going from 3,850 to 3,300, while Wales witnessed a 13% decrease, dropping from 1,210 to 1,050.

Interestingly, Northern Ireland stood out as the sole country to see an increase, with a 4.5% rise in numbers from 880 to 920. Notably, both England and Northern Ireland have higher student nurse numbers than they did in 2019, before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

UCAS has released its final set of data from its clearing series, though it’s worth noting that individuals can continue to progress through the clearing process until October 17th.

Clearing is the period during which universities offer their remaining available slots to students who were not initially placed during the initial admission process.

On A Level results day, it was reported that there was a 13% decrease in student nurse acceptances throughout the UK, and there was a 16% drop in applications for the current year.

It’s important to mention that the UCAS statistics do not include individuals pursuing nursing education through degree nurse apprenticeships.

Dr. Nichola Ashby, the Deputy Director for Nursing at the Royal College of Nursing, expressed concerns about the decline in acceptances, particularly in relation to the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan. This plan, unveiled in June, aims to boost the intake of student nurses in England by 34% to reach 40,000 by 2028, with a growing emphasis on training through apprenticeship programs.

However, Dr Ashby said: “The UK Government has stumbled at the first hurdle of their NHS workforce plan, with 12% fewer people expected to take up nursing courses this year in England.

“These numbers are not just a sad story for today, but a story for years to come of how the ministers baked future nursing shortages into the NHS.

“If the NHS workforce plan is to succeed, the UK Government must start providing details on how the plan will begin to deliver the students the NHS needs to see for the future workforce.”

She urged the government to “remove the burden of student debt and tuition fees from prospective nurses”

In England, student nurses are required to personally cover their tuition fees, whereas in the other countries of the UK, individuals have the opportunity to access tuition-free education through government bursaries.

Meanwhile, Eileen Mckenna, RCN Scotland associate director, described the drop in acceptances in Scotland a “real cause for concern amid the stubbornly high registered nurse vacancy rates and ongoing workforce challenges which are compromising patient safety and the wellbeing of staff”.

She said students in Scotland were also struggling with “significant financial pressures” amid the cost-of-living crisis, and that more support was needed for them.

Commenting on the England situation, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Nursing continues to be a rewarding career with thousands of people choosing to study nursing and midwifery every year.

“The latest acceptance numbers are still 5% higher than in 2019, following a surge of applications during the pandemic, with eligible students receiving a training grant of at least £5,000 a year.

“There will be more students coming through clearing eager to start careers in nursing, as well as those coming through apprenticeship routes.

“We’ve made significant progress in growing the workforce with record numbers of nurses working in the NHS and the first ever NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, backed by over £2.4 billion in government funding, will further boost education and training, as well as expanding apprenticeships and alternative routes into professional roles.”

Meanwhile, a Scottish Government spokesperson said recruitment and retention was a key remit of the country’s new Nursing and Midwifery Taskforce, and noted how nursing staff in Scotland are the best paid in the UK.

They added: “Applicants through UCAS can apply for up to five undergraduate programmes at a time and can, and do, apply to nursing and midwifery programmes over the summer as part of the annual clearing process.

“Once final data on acceptances into nursing programmes is known, this will be fed into the work of the taskforce.”

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