Student nurse applications rising but still down 29% since bursary axe

According to data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), 36,810 people signed up to study a nursing degree in the country by the final deadline of 30 June, up from 35,260 in 2018.

“We need to see a sustained investment to grow the supply of our future nurses”

Dame Donna Kinnair 

Despite the small increase, figures show the numbers are still down 29% from 51,830 in 2016, the year in which the bursary, which covered the cost of training to be a nurse in England, was removed.

This represents a fall of 15,030 applications since the controversial change in student funding, which has had a particular impact on mature students. 

The latest data reveals that while applications from those aged 25 and over has increased by 1,550 (3%) since last year, figures are still down a massive 71% since 2016.

The Royal College of Nursing warned that nursing applications in England were still at “crisis point”. 

With at least 40,000 nurse vacancies in the NHS, a “much bigger increase” in the number of applicants was needed, cautioned RCN chief executive and general secretary, Dame Donna Kinnair.

“At the moment, with experienced nurses leaving the workforce due to the pressures generated by the shortage, at best we are papering over the cracks,” said Dame Donna.

“We need to see a sustained investment to grow the supply of our future nurses and the urgent delivery of a long-term plan for the staff of the NHS. 

Royal College of Nursing

Dame Donna Kinnair

Source: Kate Stanworth

Dame Donna Kinnair


“We cannot do this without a massive increase in the amount of government funding to incentivise people to study to become nurse and to support them when they are in full time clinical placements.”

The news comes as health and social care secretary Matt Hancock has said he is considering new incentives to encourage students into struggling areas of nursing and that his department is exploring ways to tackle the “drop-off” in mature student applicants to nursing courses.

Mr Hancock told the Health and Social Care Select Committee on Tuesday that he accepted the need for intervention to reverse the decline in mature student applications since the removal of the bursary and also to fill gaps in community and mental health nursing.

But, in light of the new figures, Dame Donna said support should not be limited to specific groups. 

She said: “The secretary of state told the Health and Social Care Select Committee he is looking at financial incentives, but this should not be limited as he described.

“The scale of the challenge facing us means he needs to offer more support to large numbers of would-be nurses.

“What we cannot do is continue as we are. We know patient care is suffering and the staffing crisis simply has to be addressed.”

Across the UK as a whole, 48,700 people applied to a nursing course in 2019, a rise of 5% from 46,230 in 2018. 

However, this represents a 23% drop from 63,450 in 2016 and a 24% fall from a peak of 64,120 in 2014. 

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The NHS runs on the dedication of nurses and midwives, so it is positive to see over 1,800 more applications than last year – meaning the number of applications still exceeds the places available.

“There are over 17,000 more nurses on our wards since 2010 and we’re taking immediate steps to secure the staff we need for the future, including greater international recruitment and adding 5,000 extra university places.”