Seven hundred fewer nurses started training in England in 2017, the first year since the Government scrapped training bursaries in a bid to allow more nurses to be trained, UCAS figures reveal.
The numbers of people accepted to study nursing in England fell 3 per cent in 2017, while the numbers accepted in Wales and Scotland, where the bursaries were kept, increased 8.4 per cent and 8 per cent respectively.
It comes as the hospital performance watchdog said there were at least 36,000 unfilled nursing vacancies in NHS trusts and foundation trusts at the end of September this year.
The UCAS 2017 End of Cycle report shows the numbers accepted are still the second highest on record, 22,575 compared to 23,385 in 2016 – across the UK 28,000 prospective nurses were accepted to study.
They also show the numbers accepted to places did not fall as sharply as the drop in applications to study nursing, which tumbled by one fifth this year.
But nursing leaders warned that the “future supply of nurses remains in peril” with the expansion of training places available not leading to the increase in students that had been hoped.
Former Chancellor George Osborne announced the end of nursing bursaries in 2015 and students now pay tuition fees of around £9,000 and can receive a student loan.
The change sparked protests but the Government said it would spend the £800m a year saved to create thousands more training places across the country.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a 25 per cent expansion of nurse training at the Conservative Party Conference this year, which would allow an extra 5,000 places to study nursing next year.
Today’s report shows the Government will have to buck the current reversal, it said: “In 2017, there were 22,575 acceptances to nursing courses at providers in England. This is a decrease of 3.0 per cent, equating to a reduction of 710 acceptances.
“This is the first decline since 2011, and despite being lower than last year, acceptances in 2017 were 2 per cent higher than in 2015”.
There was also a significant increase in the numbers of English students who got onto nursing courses through clearing after failing to get accepted to their first or reserve choice universities.
Almost 2,000 students were accepted through clearing after being unsuccessful with their earlier offers, a 26.4 per cent increase on 2016.
Lara Carmona, associate director of policy and public affairs at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “These figures show the future supply of nurses remains in peril – we have not seen the increase we need across the UK, despite government promises.
“The reality is that the number of nursing students in England fell by 2.6 per cent this year.
“Ministers said the removal of the student bursary would mean 10,000 more nurses, and promised a 25 per cent increase in training places this year. This has not happened.”
With demand at record levels it is patients who will suffer from shortages, the RCN said.
This comes as care regulator NHS Improvement reported data on nurse vacancy rates from NHS hospital trusts, based on actual and expected full time staff numbers.
A spokesperson said: “NHS Improvement and other national healthcare Arms-Length Bodies confirm there are greater than 36,000 registered nursing vacancies (including health visitors and midwives) within NHS providers as at quarter 2 of 2017/18.”
The Department of Health said numbers were similar to 2014, and higher than 2015 with the fall being driven by declines in the number of mature students, but acceptances from students age 18-19 were up.
A spokesperson said: “Demand to study nursing has always been high – with two applications for every place – and it is fantastic that this September the second highest ever number of students will start training to become our future nurses.
“We recently expanded nurse training places by 25% for this exact reason – to give more talented students the opportunity to be part of the nursing profession and we look forward to welcoming them to our NHS.”