The recruitment of students onto nursing courses is the subject of an upcoming oral question in the House of Lords on 18 June 2020. Lord Clark of Windermere is due to ask the Government “what plans they have to facilitate the recruitment of nurses onto degree courses beginning in September 2020”. 

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted debate about the number of nurses in the NHS workforce and the potential impact of covid-19 on universities’ capacity to run courses in the autumn 2020 term.  

As health is a devolved matter this article only considers the situation in England. 

Trends in nursing degree applications and enrolments 

Until August 2017, students on nursing degrees were funded by NHS bursaries. The bursaries were abolished for all new entrants starting healthcare courses in the academic year 2017/18 and students were transferred onto the standard student loans system. Figures from the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) show that, following the funding changes, applications for nursing courses in 2018 had declined by approximately a third compared to the number in 2016. The graph below shows the number of applications for nursing degrees from applicants living in England, 2010 to 2019. 

Nursing undergraduate degree applicants (domiciled in England), 2010–19 

(Source: UCAS, June Deadline Analysis Overview: Nursing applicants at the 30 June deadline, 11 July 2019, p 2) 

As there are fewer nursing degree places available than applicants, the number of students enrolling on nursing courses has not declined at the same rate as the decline in applicants. The graph below shows nursing degree enrolment figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. It shows the number of higher education student enrolments for all first-year undergraduates in nursing (as a first degree), for the academic years 2014/15 to 2018/19. The data shows that, following the funding changes in 2017, the number of enrolments in 2017/18 declined by approximately 8% compared to the number of enrolments in 2016/17. 

First-year undergraduate nursing enrolments (first degree) in England, 2014/15 to 2018/19 

(Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency, ‘What do HE students study?: HE student enrolments by subject of study and domicile’, accessed 15 June 2020) 

What is the Government doing to encourage recruitment? 

The 2019 Conservative general election manifesto committed to employ “50,000 more nurses” by the end of the parliament. However, the Full Fact organisation has disputed whether this target consisted of newly recruited nurses or whether it depended on encouraging “existing nurses to stay” in the profession. 

Following the election, the Government announced that from September 2020 new and continuing nursing and midwifery students would receive a non-repayable maintenance grant of £5,000 per year and extra payments of up to £3,000. This is in addition to being able to apply for a student loan. During a House of Commons a debate on NHS workforce shortages, the Minister for Care, Helen Whately, provided more information on what the extra payments could be claimed for: 

[…] [A]n extra £1,000 if [students] study specialist subjects such as learning disability and mental health nursing—where we have shortages—and a further £1,000 if they study in areas struggling to recruit. There is also further funding available to support childcare costs […] 

In answer to a parliamentary question in May 2020, asking what the Government was doing to encourage nursing recruitment, the Health minister, Lord Bethell, referred to the financial support package available. He also said that the launch of the ‘We are the NHS’ television advert campaign was intended to “maximise the number of new nursing students starting degrees this autumn”. 

Impact of coronavirus on higher education providers 

There has been speculation about the potential impact of coronavirus on the ability of universities to offer the full range of courses and teaching capacity in the autumn 2020 term. In response to the pandemic, the Government has announced temporary controls on the number of undergraduates for the 2020/21 academic year. The announcement stated that the Government would have the discretion to allocate an additional 10,000 places above the cap, of which 5,000 would be “ring-fenced for nursing, midwifery or allied health courses”. 

The Guardian has reported that up to one in five of all prospective undergraduates plan to defer their studies in autumn 2020, if courses are only run online due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Nursing Times has reported that the chief executive of NHS England, Sir Simon Stevens, has called for the number of nursing degree places to be expanded to meet a “surge in interest” in the profession following the pandemic. 

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Image from Nursing in Practice.