Healthcare researchers have called for the government to provide clarity on how workforce plan expansion targets will be met, as analysis shows the need for student enrolment to expand ‘significantly’.
Analysis conducted by the Health Foundation found that the training intake for nursing courses in England will need to expand by 32,000 places to meet the targets of the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan (LTWP).
To meet the plan’s targets by 2031-32, English higher education institutes will need to enrol approximately 72,400 first-year nursing students each year according to the Health Foundation, up from only 40,400 in 2022-23.
This would be equivalent to enrolling the population of Barnsley to nursing each year.
Published earlier this year, the LTWP committed to several significant expansions of the NHS workforce, including increasing the total number of nursing and midwifery training places to 58,000 by 2031-32.
The Health Foundation’s analysis suggests that nursing and midwifery will account for 65% of the proposed increase in annual training intakes proposed by the workforce plan.
However, Health Foundation economist and co-author of the analysis, Nihar Shembavnekar, said that ‘the implications for universities and health care providers, and the speed at which they will need to increase capacity for training health care workers, should not be underestimated.
‘Boosting health care training places is vital to address chronic staff shortages and meet the future needs of the NHS, but it is just as crucial to improve staff retention.’
If current trends persist, the total number of first year enrolments across all courses England will increase by approximately 1.1% per year, Mr Shembavnekar found.
On this estimate, nursing students will need to make up 9% of all first-year student enrolments across England by 2031-32, up from 5.6% in 2022-23.
Likewise, training intakes to all clinical healthcare professions will account for around one in nine of the projected total of all first-year student enrolments.
To ensure that the workforce plan commitments are feasible, the Health Foundation highlighted the importance of ensuring increases in the capacity of the university system as well as the supply of applicants to clinical training.
‘While the LTWP commits to £2.4bn in funding for these commitments to 2028/29, how this investment will be phased in remains to be seen. Efficient allocation and use of the funding will be critical,’ the analysis noted.
Additionally, the success of the LTWP training commitments will ‘hinge’ on how effectively an expansion of trainer and educator numbers can be implemented.
Notably, there has been a significant dip in the number of applications to undergraduate nursing degrees in 2023, potentially threatening the ‘implicit assumption’ that applications will continue to rise in line with the LTWP’s demands.
In response, RCN general secretary Pat Cullen commented that to address the ongoing workforce crisis in nursing the government must ‘show the next generation that being a nurse is worth it’.
Ms Cullen warned that ‘too many are put off joining a great profession because they will be saddled with high student debt and offered a low salary – not just once qualified but in return for years of service too.
‘The plan will not work – improving care by boosting staffing levels – if we do not urgently see proper funding and greater clarity on how they intend to make laudable aims a reality. Today’s staff must feel valued and tomorrow’s must see it as a viable and attractive career.’