The number of people applying to study nursing in the UK is down from last year but is still above pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the January application deadline.
One nursing leader responding to the latest figures said the “fluctuations” seen in student nurse applications in the past couple of years was concerning, especially amid ongoing workforce shortages.
“Fluctuations in the numbers applying are a worry and make it all the more important to hold on to experienced nurses”
The data, published today by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), showed 41,222 people have applied to start a UK nursing course in September 2022.
This is a significant 10.5% drop on 2021, when more than 46,000 applications had been submitted by this point in the year.
Today’s figures are based on those who applied in line with the 26 January 2022 deadline. Potential students can still apply later in the year provided the course and university are still willing to accept applicants.
Looking across the four nations, both England and Northern Ireland saw a 8% fall in nursing applicants this year when compared with 2021.
Meanwhile, Scotland has recorded a drop of 15.5% in nursing applicants and Wales a 11% fall.
However, when compared with January 2020, before Covid-19 hit, the number of UK nursing applicants has increased by 20.5%, including a 25% rise in England and 18.5% in Northern Ireland.
There was a 4% rise in applications in Scotland when compared with 2020 and a 17.5% rise for Wales.
Meanwhile, compared with 2019, applications to nursing courses across the UK are up by 26%.
The latest application figures follow a record year in 2021 for new student nurses starting courses, with UCAS research suggesting much of this was down to people being inspired by the coronavirus pandemic and the efforts of frontline workers.
When looking at the age groups of applicants across the UK, among those aged 25 to 29, there was a reduction of 25.5% in nursing applicants when compared with 2021, but an increase of 9% on 2020.
There was a fall of 15% in applications from those aged 30 to 34 compared to 2021, but an increase of 23% on 2020.
UCAS flagged to Nursing Times that trends across all subjects in 2021 saw 20,000 additional mature students apply earlier in the year than usual, when much of the UK was in the middle of another Covid-19 lockdown. It therefore expects more mature applicants will be seen later in the year, in line with patterns in previous years.
“We know, however, that some may not make that complete journey”
It appeared the number of 18-year-olds wanting to study nursing remained in line with 2021, with a slight increase of 0.3% in the past year. This was up 29% on 2020.
There were reductions among those aged 19 (-3%), 20 (-9%), and 21 to 24 (-20%) when compared with 2021, but again these figures were an increase on those seen in 2020.
The data also showed the number of men applying to nursing courses was down by 4% on 2021 and down by 11% among women.
Unison’s national nursing officer Stuart Tuckwood said the variation in application numbers was a concern, particularly considering the growing demand in care and amid workforce shortages.
Latest data suggests there were almost 40,000 nurse vacancies in the English NHS alone last autumn.
Mr Tuckwood said: “The demand for quality nursing care continues to grow across the UK. That means the workforce needs to dramatically expand.
“Fluctuations in the numbers applying are a worry and make it all the more important to hold on to experienced nurses.”
He added that tuition fees in England and poor pay would leave potential nursing students “thinking hard” about whether to enter the profession.
Also responding to the figures, Royal College of Nursing general secretary and chief executive, Pat Cullen, stressed the importance of these applications translating into acceptances onto courses and then into registered nurses.
“We know, however, that some may not make that complete journey with too many saying that financial pressures forced them out along the way,” she said.
Ms Cullen reiterated calls from the college to scrap tuition fees for those studying nursing in England and to increase maintenance grants.
Highlighting the tens of thousands of nursing vacancies across the UK, she said the government “cannot rely on these future nurses alone to close this gap”.
Meanwhile, health and social care secretary Sajid Javid, said it was “great to see such a strong pipeline of talent coming through”.
“Our health and care staff have shown immense commitment during the pandemic, working tirelessly to look after us and our loved ones,” he added.
“It is this dedication that has inspired the next generation and the government’s commitment to ensuring we have enough nurses and midwives is unwavering.”
Mr Javid added that he hoped “this year’s applications go on to join the record numbers of nurses working in our NHS as we deliver 50,000 more nurses by the end of this parliament”.