The number of nursing students entering higher education in England dropped by 11% in 2017, the year controversial changes around how healthcare students pay for university courses went into force.
Though 19,790 students started nursing courses in 2016, this figure sunk to 17,630 in 2017, according to data published by the Office for Students (OfS) today (19 September).
The figures sparked a renewed call from the Council of Deans of Health – which represents universities in nursing, midwifery and allied health professionals – for additional financial support for students.
The 2017 funding reforms meant that healthcare students must access loans to cover tuition fees and living costs rather than non-repayable bursaries.
Since the changes, the OfS data show that though the number of young entrants to healthcare courses – including nursing, midwifery and allied health courses – increased by 4%, the number of mature students fell by 15%.
However, there was a 3% increase in the students starting midwifery courses over the same time period and little change in the number of entrants to allied health courses.
In addition, 16,500 people were accepted onto nursing courses in England this year, a 4% rise from the same point in 2018.
But Dr Katerina Kolyva, executive director of the Council of Deans, said the Council ‘remains concerned about those courses struggling to fill places and about the decline in mature students’.
She said there must be ‘further’ work to ensure future workforce demands are met – including the introduction of maintenance grants and the consideration of tuition fee repayment in return for service.
These ‘would help to support recruitment and retention on these courses,’ she added.
The OfS noted that recruitment in 2016-17 was high and – in some cases – the drop in student numbers may be a return to normal following an increase in those starting before the reforms.
Yvonne Hawkins, director of teaching excellence and student experience at the OfS, said that the ‘reduction of nursing and healthcare students is a concern for the health workforce of the future’.
She continued: ‘This data will help universities to identify gaps and opportunities to increase recruitment and ensure that the country is provided with the next generation of highly-trained health professionals.’
The OfS provides direct additional funding for the delivery of high-cost healthcare subjects and supports projects to boost take-up and development of specialist healthcare courses, she added.
Projects supported by the OfS include a virtual reality tool that aims to promote nursing and other subjects to prospective students and an online tool that strives to help students who unsuccessfully applied to nursing to build their skills in order to reapply.