Applications to undergraduate nursing courses have fallen year on year for the second time since the peak of the pandemic, figures released by UCAS today have revealed.
In the 2023 application cycle, undergraduate nursing courses fell to 33,570 applications for nursing courses across the UK. This is down by almost 8,000 from 2022, which saw 41,220 students applying to train as nurses.
In England, applications fell 18% year on year, down to 27,370 applications compared with 33,410 the year before.
This comes amid mounting concerns for nursing staffing levels, as vacancies across the NHS hit 47,000 across the UK.
Applications to nursing courses hit an all time high during the Covid pandemic, with application applications in 2023 almost returning to pre-pandemic levels.
A spokesperson for Health Education England said: ‘The Covid-19 pandemic saw a big rise in the number of applicants to nursing and midwifery courses, partly as people were inspired to join the NHS thanks to the efforts of frontline staff.
‘We have always expected the number of applicants to fall to reflect pre-pandemic figures, but we are please to see that applications continue to rise when compared to that period.
In 2021, over 46,000 students applied to join nursing courses in the UK, up 29% from the total in 2019. Moreover, this spike in applications was seen across all age groups with applications among those 35 and over nearly doubling from 5,460 to 9,300.
Yet, this year total applications are less than 1,000 above pre-pandemic totals, with some age groups seeing application totals lower than in 2019. The number of 19 year-olds, for example, has now fallen to 3,940 from a previous low of 4,370 in 2019.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen, commenting on the year on year fall, said that the figures were ‘damning for the government’.
Ms Cullen said ‘Not only are they losing a record number of experienced nurses from the NHS but they are compounding the problem by deterring the next generation.
‘With tens of thousands of unfilled nurse jobs across the country, ministers should urgently consider a set of measures to turn this situation around. Nursing staff, today’s and tomorrow’s alike, need to know they are valued and that starts with fair pay. They must scrap tuition fees for nursing students and provide higher maintenance grants.’
During several weeks of RCN strikes a number of nurses expressed their concerns that low wages for nurses working in the NHS would put off potential applicants. One nurse told Nursing in Practice that she ‘wouldn’t train to be a nurse now’.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘We know the number of applicants was exceptionally high during the pandemic but there continues to be strong interest in nursing and midwifery careers, with applications above 2019 levels.
‘For the third consecutive year, we have seen over 26,000 acceptances to undergraduate nursing and midwifery programmes and in 2022 there were 3,700 more acceptances compared to 2019 – a 16% increase.
‘We’ve made significant progress in growing the workforce with record numbers of nurses and doctors working in the NHS in England and will publish a long-term workforce plan this year focused on recruiting and retaining more staff.’