Applications to study nursing in the UK are down 16% in a year, latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) have shown.
The data set, published today, records a concerning drop in applications throughout all four nations and across almost all age groups, sparking fresh concerns about the future of the workforce.
The figures have also cast further doubts over commitments made in the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, which promised to significantly increase the number of nurse training places in England.
With applications falling now, nurse leaders have warned ‘the task ahead will be even harder than expected’.
Fall in nursing applicants ‘deeply concerning’
Today’s data set showed 43,920 individuals applied to study a nursing programme starting in September 2023. This was down 22% on 2021, following a bumper year of applicants after the Covid-19 pandemic, and also down 16% on 2022.
England saw some 36,400 people apply to study a nursing course there – also down 16% on the previous year.
But it was Wales that recorded the largest decline in applicants. According to the data, some 3,330 individuals applied to study nursing there in 2023, down 21% on the previous year.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has seen 2,410 applicants for 2023, down 17% on 2022. And Scotland recorded 6,450 applicants for 2023, down 19% on the year before.
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) chief executive and general secretary Pat Cullen said: ‘It is deeply concerning to see the number of people applying to study nursing falling again – a clear result of the way the profession has been treated by those in power.’
She stressed the nursing workforce ‘remains in crisis’ and cited ongoing issues around stress, exhaustion and the number of those leaving the profession every year.
‘Now we are seeing this failure to invest in the workforce of today is putting off the nurses of tomorrow,’ added Ms Cullen.
The RCN leader also pointed to the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan which pledged to increase training capacity in England by 80% for nursing.
Ms Cullen said that ‘today’s news shows the task ahead will be even harder than expected, as less people are applying now’.
She called for ‘urgent action’ to help overturn the decline in applications, including fair pay and access to financial support for tuition fees.
Without this, she warned ‘university places will go unfulfilled, vacant posts will remain empty and patient care will continue to be at risk’.
Decline across almost all age groups
The UCAS data set also revealed a drop in the number of nursing applications across almost all age brackets – aside from those aged 17 and under, of which numbers were unchanged on the previous year.
Applications among those aged 18 stood at 10,900 for 2023 – down 18% on 2022.
Meanwhile, the number of applications from mature students appears to have dropped significantly. There was a fall of 22% across those aged 22-29 and 30-34, as well as a 9% decline among those aged 35 and above.
Across all ages and all nations, the number of female applicants stood at 37,900 in 2023 – down 17% compared to 2022. And there were 6,020 male applicants – down 8% on 2022.
These figures are based on applications sent to UCAS by the 30 June deadline. Those applying after this deadline will be entered into the clearing process.