By Jess Redway and Michael Carter PhD
The drop in applications to nursing qualifications was widely reported after the introduction of fees and removal of the NHS bursary for degrees last year. This year we have also seen a commitment from the government to remove the bursary and swap to fees for the PGdip qualifications, and once more UCAS figures have shown a reduction in applications.
Overall applications have dropped by a third since fees bursaries were removed for nursing degree applicants. A noteworthy figure it’s own right, but it is worth taking a closer look at these numbers to get a picture of what this means for nursing in the future.
The data presented in Figure 1 compares the number of nursing applicants to UK institutions with the number of people accepted nurse training programmes. Whilst the number of applicants considerably outnumbers the number of persons accepted, this gap has been in rapid decline in recent years and, should this trend continue, the number of nursing applicants may soon be fewer than the number of training places available. Additionally, the reduced number of applicants results in a smaller pool from which to choose applicants, potentially leading to institutions filling places with applicants whom may not be so well suited to the nursing profession in an attempt to make up numbers. This must also be considered in the context of the NMC report which shows that for the first time, in the years 2016 and 2017, more nurses left the NMC register than joined.
Figure 1. A line graph showing the number of applicants to nursing compared with the number of applicants accepted onto courses in the UK. Data sourced from Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).
Whilst all age groups have seen a decline in applications, the drop is greater amongst mature students, with the biggest decline in the 20-24 age group which showed a 40% decline in applications since 2014 (39% female, 43% male) (Figure 2). With the highly likely removal of the NHS bursary for graduate nurse training courses, one would expect the number of applicants to drop much further in the upcoming years.
Figure 2. A line graph showing the numbers of applications to study nursing at UK institutions, assorted by age. Data sourced from UCAS.
Mature students make up a much higher proportion of nursing students than is common in most other degrees. They bring an experience and range of skills to nursing that is invaluable. There is also widespread recognition of the importance of bringing more men into nursing, with the RCN making a discussion of how we can do this a key debate at Congress later this year. It should therefore be a matter of concern to all of us that the application numbers show not just a drop in applications overall, but that this drop is seen most in mature and male students.
Diversity in the profession of nursing is a subject that we should all be concerned about. It is about whether we want nurses to reflect and represent the people we support and care for. It is about recognising the value of the skills and expertise different voices and backgrounds bring. If the trends in the reduction of applications continues than we are going to see a real reduction in the number and diversity of nurses in the future. Let’s all think about how we can change this before it’s too late.
About Michael Carter PhD
I’m a first year PGdip Adult Nursing student at the University of Southampton. Before nursing I did a PhD in Biochemistry and worked as a research scientist in both academia and industry. I have a strong interest in the role nurses will play in genomic medicine.