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RCN demands emergency package of measures to boost nurse recruitment in March budget

15 Feb 2024

We’ve written to the health secretary calling for urgent action to address the large fall in applicants to nursing degree courses in England.

Nursing student studying

The RCN says the government must use the forthcoming budget to introduce an emergency package of measures to support nurse recruitment, after new official figures from UCAS show a further sharp drop in applicants to nursing courses for the next academic year.  

The University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) confirms a 26% collapse in the number of applicants to study nursing in England in just 2 years despite the government’s Long Term Workforce Plan for the NHS.  

The budget on 6 March can fund emergency measures, including removing student loans for future nurses to rapidly increase applications, we say, in a letter to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Victoria Atkins.  

The figures from UCAS released today (Thursday 15 February 2024) show that there were just 24,680 nursing applicants to education providers in England this year, compared to 27,370 applicants in 2023 and 33,410 in 2022. This represents a 10% fall in the last year and a 26% fall in the last 2 years. We warn this leaves the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan in danger of falling off course and poses "a direct threat to the sustainability of the NHS and patient safety".  

The fall is underlined by a collapse in the number of mature students from the UK applying for nursing degrees offered by education providers in England, having fallen by 11% in just one year. This has continued to trend downwards, falling from 18,980 in 2021 to 11,190 in 2024. Historically, many have chosen nursing as a second career.  

In a letter to the health secretary, RCN General Secretary and Chief Executive Pat Cullen said she is deeply concerned about the rapidly deteriorating state of nurse recruitment. 

“Failure to address these critical issues will make the ambitions set out in the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan unattainable, leaving the health care system dangerously understaffed and unable to meet the growing demands of patients,” she wrote.  

“These latest figures expose a widening gap between the aspirations of the plan and the level of political effort required to make them a reality. This needs immediate intervention and corrective action to protect patients now and in the future.  

“A decline in applicants risks causing a cascading effect, with fewer students accepted onto nursing courses leading to diminished course cohorts and eventually lower numbers graduating and becoming registered nurses.  

“The UK government must recognise the severity of this emergency and take immediate action to prevent further decline in nursing recruitment. We believe the current situation poses a direct threat to the sustainability of the NHS and patient safety, considering the existing 10.3% vacancy rate in nursing positions within the NHS in England.” 

In the letter we urge the UK government to introduce the following emergency package of measures in the upcoming budget:  

  • Fund nursing student tuition fees: eliminate the financial burden associated with nursing education, thereby attracting a wider pool of potential candidates, and promoting social mobility within the profession.  
  • Implement a loan forgiveness scheme for NHS nurses: relieve financial pressure on registered nurses working in the NHS, incentivising them to remain in the public health care system and contribute to long-term workforce stability.  
  • Reintroduce universal living maintenance grants: maintenance grants need to reflect actual student need in terms of living costs so students can focus on their studies without experiencing financial or emotional hardship. This is a crucial step in addressing the issues around student retention, which are exacerbating the NHS workforce crisis. 

Pat added: “We urge you to tackle this issue head on and work with the RCN and other stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan that effectively addresses the nursing recruitment crisis.” 

Read our full letter to the health secretary

Page last updated - 15/07/2024