Janet Davies: Our future workforce

Source: NHE March/April 2018

Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), says ministers must accelerate progress to make nursing an attractive and robust career before it’s too late.

Last year was a challenging one for my profession. In the same year that the Nursing and Midwifery Council revealed that 27% more nurses are leaving nursing than are joining it, we saw the numbers entering training fall too. All the while, population demand continues to rise. This gap will grow wider without rapid action on the part of government. 

There are plenty of young people who have a passion for caring and can see their future in nursing. But we have a huge task ahead of us to encourage them to join and stay in this dynamic and varied profession when they regularly hear headlines of poor pay, 40,000 vacancies in England alone, and relentless pressure throughout the NHS.

The removal of the bursary for undergraduate nursing students was sold as a way to increase numbers trained – removing the apparent limit on student numbers. It took effect last year and, despite these intentions, it did not result in more people embarking on a career in nursing in 2017.

The early indications are that 2018 could be worse still. The latest figures from the university admissions service, released in January, show that nursing degree applications for this September entry have already fallen by 13% in England compared to the same time last year. Since January 2016 applications have fallen by a third in total – that’s 14,300 fewer applicants. The government boasts of a 25% increase in places, but more valuable still would be to attract enough students to fill them.

The very day after these figures were released, the government put measures before Parliament to withdraw funding for postgraduate students too – acting as a deterrent to those who already hold one degree and can qualify as a registered nurse in just two years.

In the same period, the government opened up a new route to becoming a registered nurse through degree apprenticeships. A new support role, the nursing associate, was introduced too. However, the new routes appear set to deliver a very small number of extra nurses. There has not been widespread uptake as employers understandably need extra financial support and, in addition to the university shortages, the new nursing apprenticeship attracted only 30 trainees against a government ambition of 1,000 apprentices this year.

The Health Select Committee has called for the nursing workforce to be expanded “at scale and pace.” Young people need to know the options available to them and are advised on their future careers by people who understand the value and impact of the nursing profession, and the wide range of career opportunities it brings. The government, employers, higher education institutions and other sector partners, together with the RCN, must launch a sustained, high-profile national recruitment campaign.

Alongside this ambition, in the RCN’s latest report, ‘Left to Chance,’ we set out costed incentives to boost numbers – including means-tested grants to ensure that the existing diversity of the student population is maintained. If we are to support our current workforce and bring on the next generation of nurses, we must restore continuing personal development (CPD) funding for nurses in England that has decreased by 60% over the past two years too. If we are to attract young people then we need to show them that nursing is a lifelong career with opportunities to expand and grow skills.

The first workforce strategy is expected from Health Education England in the summer. It must address the lack of accountability in current arrangements and, in coherent and detailed terms, explain how government will reconcile demand with the supply of nursing staff needed for safe and effective care.

In a few short months, another university application deadline looms. If, for a second time, the government fails to boost student numbers and places for them, then 2021 will become a missed opportunity to turn this around. Nursing is a wonderful career, but the government must do more to make it attractive to the tens of thousands of new nurses we need. If ministers fail, they are storing up unimaginable problems for the future.


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