By Alex Matthews-King Health Correspondent
Student loan write-offs and other incentives urgently needed to prevent ‘unimaginable problems’ caused by the removal of nursing bursary, leaders warn
Applications to study nursing in England have fallen for a second year, dropping by a third since the Government removed bursaries in 2017 requiring nurses and midwives to pay £9,000 a year in fees.
Ucas figures for the first wave of applicants hoping to start university courses in September 2018 show that the number of students wanting to study NHS nursing have again fallen sharply, by 13 per cent on last year.
This is despite the Government dropping the bursary so that more nurses could be trained, as places were previously capped by what the NHS could afford.
Health and Social Care Secretary Jeremy Hunt pledged an “historic increase” of 5,000 extra places for student nurses at the 2017 Conservative Party Conference.
But the numbers starting university courses last year fell 3 per cent after a collapse in applications, and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) warned this would happen again unless action was taken soon.
The Ucas figures show there were 32,580 applications to study nursing before the 5 January intake window to study in England in 2018, a drop of 33 per cent on the 48,230 who had applied at the same point before the bursary was removed.
There are further opportunities to apply but the most popular courses tend to fill up after this first round.
While the numbers of aspiring nurses still outnumber the total nursing places available, the collapse in applications last year resulted in 700 fewer nurses starting training in England.
Warnings of another fall come exactly five years after Sir Robert Francis called for minimum nurse staffing quotas on wards to avert care failings on the level of the Mid Staffordshire NHS scandal being repeated.
But half a decade later the NHS is trying to fill a record 34,000 full-time nursing and midwifery roles, and the number of registered nurses is shrinking as experienced staff quit because of government pay restraint policies and excessive pressures on wards.
The RCN said it wants a campaign to increase numbers while there is still time to apply in 2018, but this should be backed by a “central funding pot to be created within the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to cover means-tested grants and allow for tuition write-off to incentivise students”.
They also argue for incentives for graduates to retrain as nurses, and funding to expand the roll uptake of new apprenticeship routes into nursing.
RCN chief executive Janet Davies said: “The staffing crisis must be stopped from spiralling further.
“Extra university places are only worthwhile if they are filled and the NHS gets a newly trained nurse. When it is haemorrhaging so many experienced people, this has never been more important.
“Five years after the warnings and lessons in the Mid Staffs report, the Government is still squandering the chance to address the issue – making care failings more likely, not less. The Government knows that when there aren’t enough nurses, patients can pay the very highest price.”
The figures show the drop has been greatest in mature students, often those who have carer or financial commitments already and can’t afford to incur the £9,000 a year in fees.
This group is more likely to stay in the NHS, and work in areas like mental health where staff shortages are most acute.
“Nursing is now a graduate profession but it lacks a graduate salary that compensates for the fees paid,” Ms Davies warned.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Our priority is getting more nurses on our wards, which is why we have increased the number of nurse training places available by 25%, allowing more people to study nursing than ever before.
“Any decrease in the number of applications must be seen in the context of this significant increase in the number of nursing places available – and places remain oversubscribed.”