The number of students accepted onto undergraduate nursing courses across the UK is down 12% in a year, latest figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) have shown.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the numbers showed the government had ‘stumbled at the first hurdle’ of the recently published NHS workforce plan, which pledged to increase the number of nurse training places by 80% by 2031.
UCAS has today released 2023 acceptance data, 28 days after A Level results day, highlighting the number of students accepted onto courses on results day and during the clearing process so far – which remains open until 17 October.
Across the UK, the number of nursing students accepted onto courses for 2023 stood at 24,140 – down from 27,410 in 2022 (-12%).
Among the four nations, Northern Ireland was the only country to have recorded a slight increase in acceptances – up 4.5% in a year.
However, England saw a fall in nursing student acceptances of 12%, Scotland saw a drop of 14% and Wales recorded a 13% decline.
The number of 18-year-olds accepted onto nursing programmes across the UK dropped by 14% – down from 7,590 in 2022 to 6,520 in 2023.
And significantly, the number of mature students aged 25-29 fell by almost a quarter (22.5%) – down from 3,150 in 2022 to 2,440 in 2023.
Today’s figures have raised further concerns about how the government will meet the promises of its workforce plan and significantly increase the number of nursing students across England.
RCN deputy director for nursing, Dr Nichola 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.’
She added: ‘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.
‘It must fund more university places for nursing students and remove the burden of student debt and tuition fees from prospective nurses.’
Dr Ashby said that despite nursing being ‘one of the greatest careers that any prospective students can choose’, people were being ‘put off by the prospect of debt, low salaries and poor working conditions’ during the current cost-of-living crisis.
Meanwhile, Eileen Mckenna, RCN Scotland associate director, said: ‘This drop in acceptances onto nursing courses in Scotland is 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 added: ‘The prospect of starting a degree course during a cost-of-living crisis is bound to be having an impact.
‘Nursing is a hugely diverse profession and relies on attracting people of all ages and all walks of life, often as a second career.’
Ms Mckenna stressed action was needed to help ‘demonstrate that nursing is valued and a career choice worth pursuing’.
And she pointed to the recently announced Ministerial Nursing and Midwifery Taskforce in Scotland, of which she said provided ‘an opportunity to ensure that current and future nursing students get the financial support they need to prioritise their education, cope with the rising cost of living and finish their studies successfully without falling into financial hardship’.
A DHSC spokesperson said: ‘Nursing continues to be a rewarding career with thousands of people choosing to study nursing and midwifery every year.’
They noted that the latest acceptance numbers were 5% higher than in 2019, ‘following a surge of applications during the pandemic’.
‘There will be more students coming through clearing eager to start careers in nursing, as well as those coming through apprenticeship routes,’ they claimed.
The spokesperson added: ‘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.’