The first figures on nursing and midwifery since the government decided to abolish bursaries for NHS applicants indicate that the number of students apply has fallen by nearly one-quarter.
The 23% slump revealed by university application data indicates the impact of student nurses being forced to pay annual tuition fees in excess of £9,000.
Janet Davies, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, is under no illusions regarding the gloomy future for the profession.
“These figures confirm our worst fears. The nursing workforce is in crisis and if fewer nurses graduate in 2020 it will exacerbate what is already an unsustainable situation. The outlook is bleak: fewer EU nurses are coming to work in the UK following the Brexit vote, and by 2020 nearly half the workforce will be eligible for retirement.”
Davies outlined the fact that it is even proving difficult to fill existing vacancies, and pulled no punches regarding her assessment of the consequences of this.
“With 24,000 nursing vacancies in the UK, the government needs to take immediate action to encourage more applicants by reinstating student funding and investing in student education. The future of nursing, and the NHS, is in jeopardy.”
However, despite the strong words from within the nursing profession, university organisations dismissed the idea that there is a crisis in the profession.
It has been noted that although undergraduate numbers initially fell across the board when tuition fees were first introduced in 2012, these numbers later recovered.
“Our members report receiving a high number of good quality applications for most courses and they will continue to recruit through to the summer. Where courses have historically had a large number of applicants, fewer applicants might well not affect eventual student numbers,” Prof Jessica Corner, chair of the Council of Deans of Health, commented.
Yet regional Vvriations may pose particular problems for some areas of the country.
Michael Arthur, the provost of University College London, has noted that the national fall in applications was unevenly distributed.
“The respective numbers for UCL are quite different. We are up in UK by 5%, we are down in EU by just 0.8%, and we are up in overseas by 6.9%. So you begin to see the large variations that there will be across the country,” Arthur told the Commons.
And Prof John Latham, vice-chancellor of Coventry University, suggests that the decline in European applications will necessitate the NHS casting its net wider in the coming years.
“The falls from UK and EU students suggest that universities may need to go more global, more quickly, but each is now going to have to look at its model. I am sure some will reduce in size and scale while others may increase their share.”
In 2015, across Hospital and Community Healthcare Services (HCHS) and GP practices, the NHS employed 149,808 doctors, 314,966 qualified nursing staff and health visitors (HCHS), 25,418 midwives, 23,066 GP practice nurses, 146,792 qualified scientific, therapeutic and technical staff, 18,862 qualified ambulance staff and 30,952 managers.
There were 18,432 more NHS nurses in 2014 compared to ten years earlier.