One in 20 places to study nursing were not filled this year

The figures obtained via a Freedom of Information request suggest 6% of places were unfilled at the start of the current academic year – the equivalent of 1,450 potential nurses.

“Something must be done to overcome the issues of under-subscription and trainee attrition”

Sally Boyle

This is on top of the 6,740 students who drop out from each intake, said the report from the Open University.

It estimates the shortfall of nurses could be reduced by as much as 13% in 10 years if universities, NHS trusts and government took action to tackle issues getting in the way of people studying nursing.

A survey of young people who had considered nursing as a career found the cost of studying – including paying back student loans – alongside entry requirements and workload were key deterrents.

In all, 1,000 young people aged 18 to 24 who had thought about doing a nursing degree took part in the survey carried out on behalf of the OU last month.

A third – 33% – said the cost of study and living away from home was the main barrier to studying nursing. Other important issues included travel at 13%, entry requirements at 11% and workload at 17%.

The 1,000 young people surveyed included 74 registered nurses and 236 people currently studying to be a nurse.

“The additional flexibility this can bring enables students to learn when, how and where they want”

OU report

Worryingly nearly a third – 32% – who were part way through their studies said they were not sure whether they still wanted to be a nurse.

The data on unfilled places was obtained via a Freedom of Information request to 77 higher education institutions in the UK, with responses from 55%.

The OU’s analysis suggests that if all places to study nursing were filled each year then extra 10,100 nurses would be qualified in 10 years’ time – with a further 4,340 still studying.

This would fill 13% of the 108,000 nursing shortage predicted in a recent report by the influential King’s Fund think tank on NHS vacancies.

The findings come as latest figures show there are 11,000 vacancies for full-time nursing staff in England, while new registrations from EU nurses have fallen dramatically in the light of Brexit from 10,000 in 2015-16 to just 800 in 2017-18.

The new Breaking Barriers to Nursing report highlights the need to find new ways to address shortages and attract people to the nursing profession – including getting universities to lower entry requirements.

Currently, the vast majority of universities set entry requirements above those set out by the Nursing and Midwifery Council with nine out of 10 asking for at least three A-levels at grade C or above, said the report.

It argues this is a “significant blocker” to getting more people into nursing and excludes many who may not have had good experiences of education or not had the opportunity to gain relevant qualifications.

The report also highlights the need to embrace technology which can make it easier for people to access courses and fit studying around other commitments. This can include delivering lectures, study materials and support digitally or online.

“The additional flexibility this can bring enables students to learn when, how and where they want, which can remove barriers for those who struggle to fit studying around personal commitments or who would prefer to stay in their home locality without having to travel long distances to attend lectures,” said the OU.

Opportunities to earn money while studying could also help remove some of the financial barriers faced by would-be nurses, said the report.

The survey found more than three quarters – 77% – of those already studying nursing would be interested in a degree apprenticeship if they were applying for courses now.

Finally, the report stressed the need to promote nursing as an attractive and rewarding career as well as address negative perceptions.

This could be achieved by employers and professional bodies working more closely with schools, colleges and local communities, it suggested.

Sally Boyle, head of school in the OU’s faculty of health, wellbeing and social care, said it was “devastating” that people were being deterred from entering nursing at a time when nurses were so badly needed.

“Something must be done to overcome the issues of under-subscription and trainee attrition, so that the NHS and other healthcare providers can continue to provide safe patient care,” she said.

She said a number of barriers to people pursuing a career in nursing “can be easily addressed” if universities, employers and government worked together to take advantage of available technology and initiatives like nursing apprenticeships.

“By ensuring that the maximum possible number of nurses are training and registering each year, the sector will have better access to the nurses it urgently needs,” she added.