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Despite a small increase from last year, the latest UCAS figures show nursing degree applications in England have fallen over 30% since 2016, the last year students received the bursary.

The number of people in England applying to begin training fell from 51,840 in 2016 to 35,260 this year, figures from UCAS show, representing a decline of almost 32 per cent. There are almost 5,000 fewer applications than last year when 40,060 were received.

Additionally, student nursing numbers have dropped by 11%.

The NHS in Scotland and Wales continue to offer grants to nursing students but West Lancashire councillor Elizabeth Savage – the Labour parliamentary candidate for Southport – says removing nurses bursaries in England was a ‘catastrophic mistake’.

She launched a petition last year calling on the government to reintroduce student nurse bursaries, which received over 13,000 signatures in just a week.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said 700 fewer nursing students began training in September 2018 compared to the previous year, and it expects the figure to fall again this year.

There are currently 41,000 nursing vacancies in NHS England with fears Brexit will cause a significant loss of foreign healthcare professionals.

Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: “Failing to recruit more nurses puts patients at risk, and with 40,000 nurse vacancies in England alone, we cannot sit back and watch applications fall year on year. “It is clear now that removing the bursary has been a disaster. It is time ministers looked again at this policy before patients suffer the consequences.”

She added: “We urgently need financial incentives to attract more students into the profession, and nursing students must be encouraged and supported. Our health and social care system is crying out for more nurses and recruitment should be the number one priority for the new Health Secretary.”

The UCAS data takes into account all applications received by June 30, the final deadline for applying to up five universities or colleges simultaneously. In total there were 48,170 applications for nursing courses compared to 53,010 in 2017, a drop of 9 per cent, the figures show.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “The NHS runs on the dedication and commitment of our wonderful nurses, who work tirelessly to provide the highest quality of care for their patients. “There are currently 52,000 nurses in training to work in our NHS, with more to come thanks to our historic 25 per cent increase in training places which will ensure we have the nurses we need for the future.”

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Acting Chief Executive Dame Donna Kinnair said: “These figures show the scale of the workforce challenge ahead of us, and failure to act now risks patient care for a generation. The Long-Term Plan deserves to succeed, but it cannot do so without the nurses to deliver it.

“With applicant numbers showing no sign of recovering since the removal of student funding, health care services will ultimately have even fewer nurses to treat us in our hospitals, homes, schools and clinics.”

The figures show that the number of mature nursing student applications from people over 25 in England has seen an even greater decline, falling by 41% since the bursary was removed.

The RCN has predicted that specialist areas worst hit by the wider staffing crisis, such as learning disability and mental health nursing, will continue to struggle to recruit the nurses they need. They went on to say that both these areas rely on students with significant life experience – with fewer mature students applying, the figures mean staffing levels could fall further.

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