‘Emergency package of measures’ needed to tackle nurse recruitment

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has called on the government to introduce an ‘Emergency package of measures’, following ‘a collapse in nursing applicants’.

RCN leader Pat Cullen warned that new official figures from UCAS show a further sharp drop in applicants to nursing courses for the next academic year. 

The university and colleges admissions service confirms a 26% collapse in the number of applicants to study nursing in England in just two years despite the government’s Long Term Workforce Plan for the NHS. 

In a letter to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Victoria Atkins, Pat Cullen said that the budget on 6 March must fund emergency measures, including removing student loans for future nurses to rapidly increase applications. Cullen warned that the figures leave the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan in danger of falling off course and pose "a direct threat to the sustainability of the NHS and patient safety". 

The figures from UCAS released on 15 February 2024 show that there were just 24,680 nursing applicants to education providers in England this year, compared to 27,370 applicants in 2023 and 33,410 in 2022. This represents a 10% fall in the last year and a 26% fall in the last 2 years.  

The fall is underlined by a collapse in the number of mature students from the UK applying for nursing degrees offered by education providers in England, having fallen by 11% in just one year. This has continued to trend downwards, falling from 18,980 in 2021 to 11,190 in 2024. Historically, many have chosen nursing as a second career. 

In a letter to the Health Secretary, RCN General Secretary and Chief Executive Pat Cullen said: “I’m writing to express my deep concern about the rapidly deteriorating state of nurse recruitment. Failure to address these critical issues will make the ambitions set out in the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan unattainable, leaving the health care system dangerously understaffed and unable to meet the growing demands of patients.  

“These latest figures expose a widening gap between the aspirations of the plan and the level of political effort required to make them a reality. This needs immediate intervention and corrective action to protect patients now and in the future. 

“A decline in applicants risks causing a cascading effect, with fewer students accepted onto nursing courses leading to diminished course cohorts and eventually lower numbers graduating and becoming registered nurses.  

“The UK government must recognise the severity of this emergency and take immediate action to prevent further decline in nursing recruitment. We believe the current situation poses a direct threat to the sustainability of the NHS and patient safety, considering the existing 10.3% vacancy rate in nursing positions within the NHS in England.   

“In this context, we urge the UK government to introduce the following emergency package of measures in the upcoming budget: 

  1. Fund nursing student tuition fees: eliminate the financial burden associated with nursing education, thereby attracting a wider pool of potential candidates, and promoting social mobility within the profession. 
  1. Implement a loan forgiveness scheme for NHS nurses: relieve financial pressure on registered nurses working in the NHS, incentivising them to remain in the public health care system and contribute to long-term workforce stability. 
  1. Reintroduce universal living maintenance grants: maintenance grants need to reflect actual student need in terms of living costs so students can focus on their studies without experiencing financial or emotional hardship. This is a crucial step in addressing the issues around student retention, which are exacerbating the NHS workforce crisis.

“It is well evidenced that nursing numbers directly impact patient outcomes; higher ratios of registered nurses to patients on shift leads to reduced lengths of stay and improved mortality. The consistent decline in the number of nursing students marks a pressing patient safety concern.   

“We urge you to tackle this issue head on and work with the RCN and other stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan that effectively addresses the nursing recruitment crisis. We stand ready to work collaboratively to ensure a sustainable and robust nursing workforce for the future.” 

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