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Applications to nursing courses in the UK have risen by almost a third this year, with more than 60,000 people expressing an interest in joining the workforce.
Health and nursing leaders put the “extraordinary leap” in applications down in part to people being inspired by the work of nurses during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The tireless and outstanding commitment of all our nurses over the past year is the best possible advert for the nursing profession”
The data, published today by the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS), showed that 60,130 people had applied to a nursing course for autumn 2021 – an increase of 32% on 2020.
Of those, 5,750 were men, equating to a 40% rise on the year before.
Overall, there had been an increase across every age group with the number of potential students aged 35 and above surpassing 10,000 for the first time – a 39% rise on 2020.
Meanwhile, the number of 18-year-old applicants had increased by 26.7%, up from 13,070 in 2020 to 16,560 in 2021.
In addition, the number of 25-29-year-old applicants had also risen by 45.3% in the past year, from 5,450 in 2020 to 7,920 in 2021.
Despite the welcomed increase in applicants across the UK, the RCN flagged that these figures only took numbers back to roughly where they were in 2016 before the nursing bursary was axed in England.
The removal of the bursary saw a sharp fall in the number of applicants in England in the following years.
The government introduced a maintenance grant of £5,000 for all eligible student nurses in September 2020, but the union is calling for more and wants to see “full tuition funding and living cost support” offered.
For 2021 there were 48,300 applications to study nursing in England. Although this was up by 34% on the year before, in 2016 there were 48,230 applications.
Figures for applications to study in Scotland and Wales, which both have some form of nursing bursary, have also increased this year.
In Scotland there had been a rise of 28% on the year before – up from 7,790 in 2020 to 9,970 in 2021.
Meanwhile, in Wales the number of applications had jumped from 4,830 in 2020 to 6,240 in 2021 – an increase of 29%.
Mike Adams, RCN director for England, said the overall rise was down to the “professionalism and dedication” of nurses throughout the past year.
“It only takes numbers back to where they were five years ago and is still not at the scale that is needed”
“Today’s nursing staff are clearly inspiring those of the future,” he said.
“Their professionalism and dedication in the last 12 months has clearly encouraged even more people determined to join a diverse and fulfilling career.”
He said it was a “welcome boost in applications” but stressed that it followed “a number of years of decline since the removal of government support for tuition fees and living costs”.
“It only takes numbers back to where they were five years ago and is still not at the scale that is needed,” added Mr Adams.
“Much greater efforts are needed to close the gap on those that have been lost in that time.”
Mr Adams reiterated calls for covering the cost of tuition fees and living cost support to ensure “none of these students are forced to leave because of financial pressures”.
Also commenting, Ruth May, chief nursing officer for England, said: “This surge in interest from people – of all ages – wanting to study nursing is incredible, and is great news for the public and the health service.
“During Covid-19, the level of interest in working for the NHS has trumped lots of other careers options, and that speaks volumes about how people recognise our profession, particularly following our most challenging year.”
In addition, Professor Mark Radford, chief nurse at Health Education England, welcomed the “extraordinary leap” in applications.
“The tireless and outstanding commitment of all our nurses over the past year – from students and practising professionals to those who’ve returned to work to help with the pandemic response – is the best possible advert for the nursing profession,” he said.
“These are the nurses of the future who will help the NHS and social care recover from this pandemic”
“We will work with our outstanding universities to welcome and support many thousands of new recruits to embark on this amazing and truly rewarding career.”
Also commenting, Professor Geraldine Walters, executive director of professional practice for the Nursing and Midwifery Council, said: “I am pleased to see so many people inspired by the efforts of our nursing professionals during the coronavirus pandemic, and to have chosen to pursue a career in nursing.”
She added: “As we look to a post-Covid-19 world, the next generation of nursing professionals will be needed more than ever to provide the care we all want to see. We look forward to eventually welcoming them onto our permanent register.”
Dr Katerina Kolyva, executive director of the Council of Deans of Health, added: “Universities have worked incredibly hard with their health and social care colleagues in 2020 to offer more students places on these courses than ever before and we are delighted to see the increased interest in health careers.”
She stressed that efforts must be made to “ensure continued investment in clinical placement capacity, technology, infrastructure and teaching staff” to enable the increase in student numbers to continue.
Minister for care, Helen Whately, said she was “delighted” with the boost in applicants and especially welcomed the rise in mature applicants.
“These are the nurses of the future who will help the NHS and social care recover from this pandemic and continue to deliver world-class care to patients for years to come,” she said.
Welcoming the growth in Scotland, Eileen McKenna, associate director at RCN Scotland, reiterated that nurses of today were “an inspiration” to others.
“With high levels of vacancies within the NHS and care homes, we know Scotland needs more nurses,” she said.
Meanwhile, Helen Whyley, director of RCN Wales, added: “To deliver safe, effective, and quality care Wales desperately needs more nurses, so I am pleased to see an increase in the number of nursing applications this year.
“This increased interest in nursing as a career has surely been inspired by the courageous and dedicated nursing professionals working on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic over the last year.”
However, she stressed that “nursing applications do not guarantee nursing places”, adding, “we cannot be complacent”.
All UCAS data is based on applications received by the 29 January deadline for full-time undergraduate applications for courses that start this autumn.
However, applications for undergraduate courses can continue to be made until the end of June, provided universities and colleges have indicated there are places available.
Additionally, applicants can apply direct to Clearing over the course of the summer.