The number of applications to study nursing across the UK has fallen by almost 20%, the first official figures for the coming academic year reveal.
The new data set, published today by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), shows a decline in nursing applicants across all age groups and within each UK nation for 2023-24, as of the January deadline.
“Ultimately, it is patient care that will continue to suffer”
Nurse leaders have described the figures as “damning” and urged the government to consider measures to “turn this situation around” immediately.
Some 33,570 individuals have applied to study nursing from this autumn – more than 7,600 less than the same time in 2022 (-18.5%).
While nursing application rates had seen a sharp boost following the coronavirus pandemic, today’s figures are also a 3% decline on those from the January 2020 deadline and are only up 3% from 2019.
When broken down by nation, Scotland has seen the largest drop, with almost a quarter (24%) fewer nursing applications. The country has recorded 5,070 nursing applications for courses starting this year, down from 6,690 last year.
Meanwhile, the number of applications to study nursing in Wales has fallen by 22% – from 3,630 by January 2022 to 2,820 by January 2023.
In England, applications have declined by 18%, from 33,410 to 27,370.
Nursing courses in Northern Ireland have also recorded a 17% decline in the number of applicants. A total of 2,380 people applied to start nursing in 2023, down from 2,880 in 2022.
Concerningly, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, nursing application figures are all down on those from 2020 and 2019.
Nursing applications also fell in every age group, from 17 and under to 35 and over, in 2023, compared with last year.
The issue was most prominent among mature student applications.
For example, the data showed a 25% drop in the number of nursing applications from those aged 30 to 34, and a 24% decline in those aged 25 to 29.
In addition, the number of applications from those aged 18, as well as those in the 21- to 24-year-old category, dropped by more than 20% when compared with the previous year.
“There continues to be strong interest in nursing”
Department of Health and Social Care
The data set also showed the number of applicants who were women was down 24% this year when compared with 2022 – from 36,620 to 29,530.
Meanwhile, the number of applicants who were men were down 12% on the previous year – from 4,600 to 4040.
Responding to the new figures, Royal College of Nursing general secretary and chief executive, Pat Cullen, said: “These figures are damning for the government.”
She warned ministers were “deterring the next generation” of nurses and stressed that amid record nurse vacancies, the government must “urgently consider a set of measures to turn this situation around”.
Ms Cullen added: “A sharp drop in mature student applicants to nursing courses across the UK is deeply concerning too.
“During the pandemic, people were drawn to apply to study nursing by the professionalism that was showcased.
“These figures show that has been reversed entirely. Ultimately, it is patient care that will continue to suffer.”
In addition, Eileen McKenna, RCN Scotland associate director, added it was “very worrying to see these figures going in the wrong direction” and stressed how the country “desperately needs more nurses”.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We know the number of applicants was exceptionally high during the pandemic but there continues to be strong interest in nursing and midwifery careers, with applications above 2019 levels.”
They also noted that for a “third consecutive year, we have seen over 26,000 acceptances to undergraduate nursing and midwifery programmes”.
“We’ve made significant progress in growing the workforce with record numbers of nurses and doctors working in the NHS in England and will publish a long-term workforce plan this year focused on recruiting and retaining more staff,” the spokesperson added.
The data published today is based on applications received by 25 January 2023. Any applications after this date will be considered depending on whether a university has space for these potential students.