Nursing courses across the UK this year have finally seen a rise in the number of students, which is welcome news given the necessity for them.
However, with this news has come an accompanying warning – there needs to be an increase in the efforts to retain them.
Ensuring that nursing students enter the workforce in the future is a key goal now that numbers have risen, particularly since academics are still uncertain about the exact impact that Covid-19 has had on attrition rates due to undergraduates struggling to continue their studies due to the pandemic.
Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) in its latest clearing statistics show that, as of 25th August, 33,240 new students had been placed onto nursing courses across the UK for 2021-22.
This is up 5% from the year before, though there is a varied picture across the UK, with England seeing the largest increase at 6.5%.
In Scotland there was a rise of 1%, whereas both Wales and Northern Ireland have seen a drop in the number of nursing students – a fall of less than 1% and 11% respectively, compared with the previous year.
Interestingly, data has also pointed towards a rise in the number of mature students and those aged 18, compared to a downturn in the number of students who are in their early 20s on nursing programmes.
When it comes to gender differences, figures have revealed that the number of men accepted onto nursing courses has remained relatively similar to last year, standing at around 2,800.
Comparatively, there has been a 5% increase in the number of women accepted onto nursing courses.
The picture is still unclear
Though these statistics are promising and positive, it is still too soon to determine the exact effect of this rise in the number of student nurses.
Given that the need for student nurses is most prominent in areas such as mental health and learning disabilities, it is too soon yet to gather how significant the impact of these rising numbers will be across the board.
Senior visiting fellow at the Health Foundation, Professor Jim Buchan, said “We need to get behind the national headline, and be assured that we are seeing significant growth into the part of the register and geographic regions that have the biggest shortage.”
Part of achieving this is the need to support and enable students to stay on courses and eventually join the workforce, rather than resting on the positive news.
Some suggestions to improve retention include providing the right supervision and support for students, and also providing greater flexibility.
There are very few part-time nursing courses, which may be preventing mature entrants who need the flexibility to balance study and other life commitments that can be complex.
The impact of the pandemic
The reason that greater emphasis needs to be placed on retention efforts is due to the profound effect that the pandemic has had on current student nurses.
Shifting to online learning was one major change that impacted students, alongside the introduction of paid, non-supernumerary clinical placements, which has culminated in a rather disruptive academic year.
A survey by Unison revealed that 70% of students or newly qualified nurses and midwives felt they had missed out on important learning experiences during the pandemic.
Similarly, over half of final year respondents worried that they were not as prepared for their newly qualified role as they should be.
What can be done?
In the same Unison study, feedback was given by nurses and midwives beginning their careers on what was deemed to be useful or essential for their job.
89% agree that guaranteed, regular and paid ‘protected time’ (time away from clinical work) for learning and development, and for looking after their own wellbeing, is useful or essential
89% believe it would be useful or essential for their employer to guarantee time to adjust to their new jobs where they are not considered part of the staff
84% would like study days that are protected and regular
76% agree that in their first year of work there should be more structure to the ‘preceptorship’ programme, where more experienced staff provide guidance.
In essence, if these results were moved into action, nurses at the beginning of their careers would have a month where they aren’t included in normal staffing numbers, with a minimum of one day a month for learning, development and wellbeing.
This would also include time for clinical leaders to provide them with career support and development, which critically, would take place away from clinical duties.
The right support is critical
Many student nurses have faced unprecedented demands during the pandemic, which is why a focus on support in the workplace is now so critical.
Some nurses might have a lack of confidence due to missing out on training opportunities as a result of the pandemic, so in order for them to thrive in their new roles, adequate support is needed so that they are not disadvantaged.
After so many challenges, there is now a movement towards a recovery phase to catch students up, which has even included greater emphasis on virtual technology for learning.
With the backing of the NMC, some universities have used simulation suites to fill placement gaps and enable students to undertake 300 hours of simulated learning across the duration of their programmes.
Though face-to-face learning is still critical, the positive digital innovations born out of Covid-19 should be maintained, according to Professor Jane Perry, dean of health, sport and bioscience at the University of East London.
Going forward it is expected that most universities will adopt a ‘blended approach’, which makes the need for adequate support and supervision even more essential.
The rise in numbers of nursing students in the UK is positive news given how tumultuous the last year has been for nurses.
However, without adequate support efforts to retain these nursing students and help them to join the workforce, nurses may be left feeling unvalued in their studies or the workplace.
Supporting students through their course as a blended approach is utilised will keep them engaged and encouraged.
Giving new nurses entering the workforce a period in which they are not considered part of the staff and have allotted time for development and training can ensure that nurses aren’t left behind after the pandemic.