The past 18 months has seen UCAS accelerate its ambition to be the go-to place for higher education data-driven insights. We’ve published no fewer than ten policy reports during this period, sharing our insight to drive positive change. One such report was our deep-dive into nursing, ‘Next Steps: Who are the ‘future nurses’?’ The report, published in January 2022 in partnership with Health Education England (HEE), painted a picture of the next generation of nurses who have been inspired by the pandemic.
Rather than filing these reports into the data archives, we want to ensure their longevity and utility. That’s why, last week, UCAS took the opportunity to host a roundtable event, in conjunction with regional nursing specialists from the South West. With thanks to the 40+ colleagues who attended – the learnings were fivefold.
1. The data story - rising demand masks regional inequalities
The report illustrated how demand for nursing education and training skyrocketed during the pandemic, with more than 56,000 people embarking upon their individual journeys to becoming a nurse. Whilst the most data has shown a slight drop-off in demand, figures released 28 days after results day show that demand for nursing courses in England is still 20% above pre-pandemic (2019) levels.
Nevertheless, UCAS research also highlights how the regional picture is more complex. Over the past five years, the South East and South West have consistently experienced a net loss in nursing students. In 2021, this amounted to a proportional net loss of -19% (South East) and -12% (South West). This, coupled with lower regional application rates is contributing to challenges related to the supply of nurses in the South of England. So, what can be done about this?
2. Finance and cost
The current cost of living crisis simply cannot be ignored. Whilst there are deep, systemic issues that are not unique to nursing, such as the rising costs of petrol and accommodation, it is also the case that for some, awareness (not availability) of financial assistance is the challenge. Here, UCAS can help by promoting and highlighting the existence of the Learning Support Fund and other bursaries.
3. Placement flexibility and experience
Our January research highlighted the nervousness some applicants felt about their placement experience, with one respondent remarking, ‘I’m very excited but slightly nervous as my clinical work experience was cancelled due to COVID’. Within the South West specifically, work is underway through the integrated care systems (ICSs) to enable greater consistency and quality of experience. For UCAS, we can play our part by working with HEE and the NHS to design ‘drop-in’ sessions focused on practice placements as part of our nationwide programme of events and exhibitions, attended by c.150,000 young people each year.
4. Balancing supply with demand
UCAS projects the 2026 cycle could see almost one million applicants – around 25% more than in 2021. When we adjust this forecast for nursing, based on the average proportion of applicants to nursing in each age group, we find that annual demand could exceed 50,000 – an 8% increase on the current figure – but this increased demand will present challenges to the current architecture.
In the South West, the challenge is acute – 4% of firm choices to providers in the South West are for nursing courses, compared to 9% in the East of England – however, plans are afoot. One example is increased flexibility in provision, with universities and colleges developing multiple intakes beyond the traditional September start – this has a knock-on benefit of easing pressure on placement providers in that autumn period. In addition, new provision is being established in identified cold spots with nursing degrees available in Somerset for the first time ever.
5. Ensuring that expectations match experiences, across vocational and academic routes
UCAS research shows that nursing is leading the way for vocational and technical pathways both into and within the profession, with three quarters of nursing applicants holding vocational and technical qualifications, compared to two in five of all applicants. Nonetheless, more can certainly be done to support the c.50% of individuals who apply, but ultimately are not placed onto nursing undergraduate degrees – for these individuals, accessing a Trainee Nursing Associate may be the right route to achieving their desired outcome. Supporting individuals in understanding and navigating the myriad of pathways is so important.
As set out in the NHS long-term plan, the next decade will see a transformation within health and care. This must be underpinned by a motivated workforce, which is equipped for the new landscape. Today’s Year 10 students are the cohort of 2026. It is by ensuring that these individuals are not beset by archaic misconceptions of what it means to be a nurse, but are resilient to its challenges and opportunities, that we will build our workforce of the future, both across the Southwest and nationwide.