The report, Left to chance, contains new figures from UCAS, which show the current number of applications for the next academic year has fallen by a third since the same point in 2016, and by 13% since last year.
This is despite Government attempts to boost the number of trainee nurses following the publication of the Francis report five years ago.
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 the RCN’s analysis shows they are not finding enough students to fill them.
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.
As a result, the RCN says urgent action is needed to prevent the staffing crisis from getting even worse.
RCN Chief Executive & General Secretary Janet Davies 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.”
The report says a nationwide Government campaign is urgently needed to encourage would-be nursing students to apply before the summer in order to boost the numbers joining England’s nursing workforce in 2021.
It also calls for a range of incentives to encourage people into nursing, including a central funding pot in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to help with students’ costs; more incentives for post-graduates to convert to nursing; and the DHSC and Treasury to cover the cost of apprenticeships to encourage greater uptake by NHS employers.
Janet added: “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.”