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Fall in would-be nurses expected for September, report shows

RCN calls for new incentives to boost student numbers

Jo Carlowe

Monday, 05 February 2018

Government plans to boost the number of trainee nurses in the wake of the Francis report are failing, the Royal College of Nursing warns on the fifth anniversary of the landmark inquiry.

A further fall in would-be nurses starting training can be expected this September after new UCAS figures today, contained in a report by the RCN, reveal a second decline in applications.

Changes to the funding of nurse training – including the removal of the student bursary – were announced in 2015 as a way to increase nurse numbers. Last year, ministers repeatedly announced extra nurse training places but they are not finding enough students to fill them, the analysis shows.

Seven hundred fewer students began training last year after the overhaul of nurse education. Today’s report shows the number of applications is continuing to fall this year and, without action to increase numbers, a fall in trainees is expected.

The government must offer incentives to find tomorrow’s nurses, the RCN’s report says. It comes after separate analysis found the current nursing workforce is shrinking and at least 40,000 vacancies in England’s NHS.

The current number of applications for the next academic year has fallen by a third (33%) since the same point in 2016 - 43,720 down to 29,390 and by 4,310 (13%) on last year alone.

In addition to the university student shortages, the new nursing apprenticeship attracted only 30 trainees against a government ambition of 1,000 apprentices this year.

Five years after the Francis report into Mid Staffordshire blamed unsafe nurse levels for poor care, Janet Davies says the government has ‘squandered’ the opportunity to address the issue. Similar care failings will become more likely as a consequence, the RCN chief executive warns.

Ministers must encourage would-be nurse students to apply before the summer in order to boost the numbers joining England’s nursing workforce in 2021. The report, Left to chance: the health and care nursing workforce supply in England, calls for an urgent national campaign organised by the Department of Health and Social Care and Health Education England.

The decision to leave the European Union is added incentive for Britain to train its own nurses and rely less on expensive and challenging international recruitment. The report also sets the current falls against the widely expected increases in demand from an ageing population.

In addition to the urgent campaign, the report calls for:

  • A central funding pot to be created within the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to cover means-tested grants and allow for tuition write-off to incentivise students
  • Greater incentives for graduates of other subjects and those already working in the NHS to convert to nursing in post-graduate programmes with financial support
  • The Treasury and DHSC to cover the costs of the apprenticeship model to encourage greater uptake by NHS employers who deliver the course
  • A comprehensive and long-term workforce strategy to be developed by Health Education England with a methodology to determine true population demand on health and care services
  • Safe staffing levels and accountability for planning and provision set in legislation in England and all UK nations
  • Budgets for the continuing professional development (CPD) of the non-medical health care workforce to be reinstated and opportunities clearly communicated.
Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Nursing is a wonderful career but the Government must do more to make it attractive to the tens of thousands of new nurses we need. If ministers fail, they are storing up unimaginable problems for the future. The staffing crisis must be stopped from spiralling further.

“Extra university places are only worthwhile if they are filled and the NHS gets a newly trained nurse. When it is haemorrhaging so many experienced people, this has never been more important.

“Five years after the warnings and lessons in the Mid Staffs report, the government is still squandering the chance to address the issue - making care failings more likely, not less. The government knows that when there aren’t enough nurses, patients can pay the very highest price.

“Nursing is now a graduate profession but it lacks a graduate salary that compensates for the fees paid. With fair pay and other incentives, ministers must redouble efforts to get students into nursing courses this year.”

Responding to the latest Royal College of Nursing Report, Left to Chance, which shows a second decline in nursing applications this year, Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers said:

“This report is the latest in a long series of warning signs that fewer people in England, and in other parts of the UK, are seeking out nursing as a profession.

“NHS organizations do work hard to address staff concerns and retain vital skills, and there has been welcome support from the government for easing paying restraint for our staff.

“Clearly however, as we celebrate the 70th year of the NHS, we must ensure that the population see the hugely rewarding career that being a nurse or midwife offers”

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