The U.K. is in the middle of a dire nursing shortage as the National Health Service recovers from another strike. And healthcare leaders are afraid the situation will only get worse now that the number of applications to nursing schools has fallen for the second year in a row, a troubling sign for the future of the industry.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) says there were 33,570 applications to nursing schools in the U.K. for the 2023 application cycle, marking a 18% decline from the year before when 41,220 students applied to be nurses.
That’s bad news for the country’s healthcare system, which currently has 47,000 nurse vacancies. Experts say applications rose during the pandemic but that trend has faltered as nurses continue to complain about the lack of pay.
“The COVID-19 pandemic saw a big rise in the number of applicants to nursing and midwifery courses, partly as people were inspired to join the NHS thanks to the efforts of frontline staff,” Health Education England said in a statement. The latest numbers are lower than pre-pandemic levels.
The Royal College of Nursing has been organizing strikes across the NHS over the ongoing pay dispute. Pat Cullen, the secretary of the RCN, said the latest figures are “damning for the government.”
“Not only are they losing a record number of experienced nurses from the NHS but they are compounding the problem by deterring the next generation,” she said.
Cullen said the government is in danger of bankrupting the country’s supply of nurses unless it does more to reverse the current trend.
“With tens of thousands of unfilled nurse jobs across the country, ministers should urgently consider a set of measures to turn this situation around,” she said. “Nursing staff, today’s and tomorrow’s alike, need to know they are valued and that starts with fair pay. They must scrap tuition fees for nursing students and provide higher maintenance grants.”
Low wages are likely preventing thousands of potential would-be nurses from applying. One nurse recently told reporters that she “wouldn’t train to be a nurse now” because the pay is so low.
But some government officials believe the overall trend is positive.
“We know the number of applicants was exceptionally high during the pandemic but there continues to be strong interest in nursing and midwifery careers, with applications above 2019 levels,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care.
“For the third consecutive year, we have seen over 26,000 acceptances to undergraduate nursing and midwifery programmers and in 2022 there were 3,700 more acceptances compared to 2019 – a 16% increase,” they added.
“We’ve made significant progress in growing the workforce with record numbers of nurses and doctors working in the NHS in England and will publish a long-term workforce plan this year focused on recruiting and retaining more staff.”
The nurses with the NHS have been striking to demand higher pay. They are asking for a 19% raise but no deal has yet been made.
Several leaders blamed the conservative party for refusing to meet the RCN’s demands.
“It is a badge of shame for the Conservatives that they have turned off thousands of young people from a career in the NHS when we need them more than ever before,” said Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting.