Nursing student numbers across England boosted by pandemic, data reveals

In total, a record 28,815 students in England of all ages selected a nursing course in 2021 as their first choice when applying to university.

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The number of 18-year-old students choosing to study nursing has surged since 2019, data from Ucas reveals, with nearly seven in 10 reporting that the pandemic had inspired them to apply.

In total, a record 28,815 students in England of all ages selected a nursing course in 2021 as their first choice when applying to university.

And the number of 18-year-olds who choose to study nursing has increased by 38% to 7,105 since 2019, leading to a 43% increase in numbers with a confirmed place.

In a report from Ucas and Health Education England, 69% of 2021 nursing applicants said they were inspired by the pandemic to apply to study nursing, while around one in 10 said this was the most important factor in their decision.

The report found that one in four applicants in 2021 said current healthcare workers were the most influential factor in their decision to apply.

Last year, leading nurses said the professionalism shown by nurses during the coronavirus pandemic could be behind a leap in the number of students, with Ucas figures published in August showing that the number of students accepted on nursing courses throughout the UK had increased by 8% since 2020 to 26,730.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said at the time that the increase was encouraging, but warned of significant staff shortages ahead.

RCN director for England Patricia Marquis said last year that “record numbers of acceptances does not equate to record numbers of nurses entering the workforce, as many of these students won’t qualify until 2024 and beyond.

“There are already significant staff shortages in nursing and it is clear acceptance numbers are not keeping pace with vacancies,” she added.

The report published on Thursday found that 99% of 2021 nursing applicants surveyed said they were confident they had made the right decision in their course of study.

It also found that nursing, like education, and health and social care, has a “positive equality gap”, with more young people from poorer areas of the UK entering the nursing profession than their wealthier peers.

The study showed there was a 51% increase in nursing students starting courses more than an hour-and-a-half away from their homes, which could address geographic “cold spots”.

The data showed that 30% more students had applied to mental health nursing courses in comparison with 2019, following reports from Ucas of a 450% increase in mental health declarations in applications over the past decade.

Demand for courses from EU applicants rose by 6%, in contrast with an overall fall of 42% in EU applicant numbers to English courses.

But nursing retains a “stark gender gap”, with women more than nine times more likely to choose and be placed on nursing courses, with the gap rising to 57 times more likely for courses in children’s nursing.

Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said: “It is incredibly heartening to see that one of the positive legacies of the work of our incredible healthcare workers during the pandemic is that more of our young people have been inspired to enter the nursing profession, particularly when they are arguably the ones who have been most impacted, both in terms of their education and way of life.”

Ruth May, chief nursing officer for NHS England, said: “The last couple of years, difficult as they have been, have shone a spotlight on the value of our nursing profession and the rewarding careers on offer in every corner of the NHS.

“We are thrilled to see tens of thousands of applications – and a record number of acceptances – to study nursing and are delighted by the contribution of the close partnership between Ucas and our ‘We are the NHS’ recruitment campaign to these results.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “I’m thrilled that a record number of 18-year-olds applied to study careers in nursing in 2021, with the extraordinary achievements of staff during the pandemic inspiring a new generation to become the future of our health and care services.

“We are on track to recruit 50,000 more nurses by the end of this Parliament and we are supporting all eligible nursing students with a training grant worth at least £5,000 a year. I urge anyone who wants a fulfilling career in the NHS to apply next year.”

Ms Marquis said: “The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the profession and the surge in applications to study nursing is very welcome.”

But she added: “Many of the existing nursing workforce are thinking of leaving the profession because of the unrelenting pressures and because they feel undervalued, exhausted and that they can’t give patients the level of care they want.

“Ministers now need to grip the situation or risk this wave of enthusiasm being squandered.”