Student nurse numbers declining! –10,000 off target by 2025! – says RCN

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Nurses marching insist more nurses will save patients' lives

STUDENT nurse numbers are declining to the extent that the official NHS workforce plan for England will be over 10,000 off target by 2025, new analysis by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) shows as it calls for renewed investment and action.

The nursing union is also warning that student recruitment could fall into an ‘irretrievable downward spiral’ as increasing numbers of university nursing courses are at risk of closure.
Ministers must prioritise introducing a plan to increase student nurse applications for the 2025 intake, with the first UCAS deadlines just six months after the general election.
It came on Tuesday, the second day of the RCN’s annual conference where over 3,000 nursing staff were discussing the nursing workforce crisis.
The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan published in June last year aims to grow the nursing workforce from around 350,000 nurses to around 550,000 in 2036/37.
However, in the last four years, the number of people starting nursing courses has declined at an average rate of 6.7%.
If this trend continues, the next two years would see the NHS in England 10,952 nursing students short of the numbers needed to meet the plan’s ambition in its first years.
To get back on track, applications must now increase on average by 4,466 (11%) with the number of acceptances needing to rise on average by 2,330 (10.4%) every year.
The RCN says such rapid increases will be impossible to deliver without a serious and significant government intervention.
In 2017, the government removed the bursary – a grant to support nursing students through university – and ended government-funded tuition.
It means nursing students must now pay university fees of over £9,000 per year, which has caused applicant numbers to drop significantly.
Courses are also under threat from the financial crisis gripping universities. In a survey of over 500 nurse educators in England, six in ten (61%) say they’re being directly affected by redundancy, a staffing restructure or recruitment freeze.
The RCN says the surge in growth required to deliver the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan will be impossible to achieve with fewer courses and educators.
In its general election demands, the College says the next government must take urgent action to turn the situation around by fully funding tuition for nursing students and introducing universal living maintenance grants.
Patricia Marquis, Executive Director for RCN England, said: ‘Making the next generation of nurses pay £9,000 a year to work in our NHS was a grave mistake.
‘Applications have collapsed and now the NHS is falling behind its own recruitment targets just one year into the Long Term Workforce Plan. The ground is being laid for workforce shortages to deepen, impacting patient care.
‘The financial crisis engulfing universities means the courses that supply the nurses of the future are under severe risk and staff are being made redundant. This threatens to send student recruitment into an irretrievable downward spiral. Fewer courses and fewer teachers means fewer nurses – it’s that simple.
‘The trends are deeply concerning and require swift and decisive action. The next government must fund tuition fees for nursing students, reintroduce universal maintenance support and stabilise the higher education sector.’
Meanwhile, new analysis from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) released on Tuesday reveals a huge collapse in the number of learning disability nurses training to work in England’s health and care services – with the regional picture revealing large swathes of the country where shockingly few learning disability nurses will enter the workforce in the years to come.
As thousands of RCN members gathered in Newport, Wales at the College’s annual Congress, RCN analysis of UCAS data revealed a 36% drop in acceptances to learning disability nursing courses between 2015 and 2023 – while only 2% of all nursing course acceptances were for learning disability courses in 2023.
The picture is even more shocking on a regional level. In the South West, there were only 10 acceptances to learning disability nursing courses in 2023, with a similar picture in the South East (5 acceptances) and the East of England (10 acceptances). The RCN says this will leave a shocking dearth of support for people with a learning disability in large areas of the country.
The RCN’s analysis also revealed a staggering drop of 44% in the number of learning disability nurses in the NHS in England since records began in 2009.
Learning disability nurses are qualified nurses who provide specialist health care and support to people with a learning disability – a group who can face serious health inequalities and die on average around 20 years younger than people in the general population.
Learning disability nurses are often crucial in ensuring people with a learning disability get the support they need to live healthier and more independent lives.
The RCN says this is evidence that people with a learning disability are being ‘forgotten’ and is urging parties during the election to prioritise investing in learning disability nursing.
RCN Professional Lead for Learning Disability Nursing Jonathan Beebee said: ‘These figures are highly alarming. For decades the number of learning disability nurses has been decreasing – and now we’re seeing large sections of the country where there is the future prospect of no specialist nurse support for miles and miles. It is damning of the way people with a learning disability are being forgotten.
‘The number of learning disability nurses has lowered to unacceptable levels – and we are even hearing about universities closing their courses. This dearth of support for one of society’s most marginalised groups is appalling.
‘This must be a priority for any new government as we enter an election. People with a learning disability deserve skilled support – and the role of learning disability nurses is crucial to achieving this.’

  • The only way to avoid a six-month delay to this year’s NHS nurse pay uplift is to hold negotiations in the weeks after the election, the RCN leader said at the union’s annual conference.

A pay award delayed until Parliament sits again in September, reaching bank accounts only from November, will be more than six months into the financial year.
Professor Nicola Ranger, Acting General Secretary and Chief Executive, made the call in her keynote speech at the RCN Congress in Newport, Wales, as she launched the College’s General Election manifesto.
The document makes twelve headline policy calls, leading with asking for a substantial pay rise for nursing staff.
The document also sets out the RCN’s position on seeking safety-critical staffing ratios, changes to immigration law to allow families to remain united, protections for staff raising concerns and an eradication of care in corridors and other inappropriate locations.
The NHS Pay Review Body had been expected to report formally to the Department of Health and Social Care by the end of May.
RCN members in the NHS in England are still formally in dispute over pay, terms and conditions since last year but have not been balloted for strike action in the last 12 months.