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  • 09 February 2024
  • 3 min read

Has The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan Already Hit the Rocks?

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The total number of nursing students fell to 26,330 in 2023, down from 29,440 in 2022The total number of nursing students fell to 26,330 in 2023, down from 29,440 in 2022

Recent data from UCAS revealed a 10.6% decline in the number of students accepted onto nursing courses at UK universities between 2022 and 2023.

The total number of nursing students fell to 26,330 in 2023, down from 29,440 in 2022. There was a contrasting rise of 2% in the numbers being accepted onto midwifery courses for the same period, however.

The decrease in numbers comes just six months after the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan set an ambitious target of nearly doubling the combined numbers of nursing and midwifery students, from 40,400 students in 2022 to 72,400 by the 2031-32 academic year.

Given the decline, it raises a question over the NHS Long Term Workforce plan and whether it was realistic in its aspirations for increasing the number of student nurses.

'Falling off-course'

This drop in student numbers showed the government’s NHS Long Term Workforce Plan was ‘falling off course’ before it had properly begun, argued the RCN’s chief nurse Nicola Ranger.

"Nursing is one of the greatest professions anyone can join but students are being put off by low wages, high debt, and incredibly pressurised working environments. With tens of thousands of vacancies already in the NHS, we can’t afford more would-be nurses to choose other career paths", she said.

the government staunchly refuses to invest in the nursing workforce to bring the NHS back from the brink

“For the [long term workforce] plan to succeed, we need to see significant increases in the numbers choosing to study nursing and we’re going in the wrong direction” warned the RCN’s deputy chief nurse Dr Nichola Ashby.

“Our health services are in crisis, but the government staunchly refuses to invest in the nursing workforce to bring the NHS back from the brink – while the social care sector suffers just as severely” she explained.

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Costs of studying to become a nurse

Arguably, it's no longer just about funding the existing nursing workforce. Nursing careers are still a clear ambition for many young people, but the costs of studying and the prospect of leaving with debt, combined with tales of burn-out and stress, could well be a factor in the drop in numbers of student nurses, and therefore the overall shortage of nurses generally.

The demand for healthcare courses remains robust, according to a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson: "Healthcare courses were in high demand during the pandemic and while this has rebalanced, we are still seeing strong demand."

"Nursing continues to be a rewarding career with thousands of people choosing to study nursing every year’, they insisted.

But the question remains - if the numbers of nursing and midwifery students continues to decline, does the NHS Long Term Workforce plan have any chance of succeeding? And what can the government do to try and incentivise more people to consider nursing as a career? One solution might be to reinstate proper nursing bursaries. If nothing is done, the predictions are dire for NHS nursing generally.

Some information about student nurse bursaries that you might find interesting:

1. Do student nurses get a bursary (and how to apply for it)

2. How the student nurse bursary works (how much you will get)

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About the author

I believe people working in healthcare should be able to choose to enjoy work. That is, choose an employer who reflects their values and provides them with a sustainable career. This leads to better patient care, higher retention rates and happier working lives in this most important employment sector.


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