Nursing students are still dropping out in worrying numbers

Analysis by Nursing Standard and the Health Foundation shows a quarter of all nursing students are leaving or suspending their degrees before graduation

4 September 2019

Better financial support is needed to tackle one in four nursing students dropping out of their degrees before graduation

A quarter of all nursing students are still leaving their courses early or suspending their studies, at a time when new nurses are needed more than ever.

A Nursing Standard analysis in collaboration with independent charity the Health Foundation, shows that despite political pledges to tackle the issue, students are still dropping out in worrying numbers.

With the health service struggling with a shortage of nurses – estimated at 40,000 vacant posts in England alone – the issue of nursing student attrition has never been more pressing.

Data obtained by Nursing Standard and the Health Foundation show that of 19,566 UK nursing students who began three-year degrees due to finish in 2018, a total of 4,695 left their courses early or suspended their studies.

This gives an average attrition rate of 24.0% in the UK. The attrition rates for courses finishing in 2017 stood at 24.8%.

Previous research has shown students who leave their courses blame reasons such as finances, academic issues, placement quality, workload and lack of support.

In 2017, the government replaced the NHS bursary for nursing students in England with a tuition fees and loans system, which experts say has hit students in the pocket.

Earlier this year, a report from the Health Foundation, together with The King’s Fund and the Nuffield Trust, called on the government to significantly increase the financial support available to nursing students with ‘cost of living’ grants of around £5,200 a year, in addition to the means-tested loan system.

Ben Gershlick, Senior Economist at the Health Foundation, said:

‘The shortage of nurses in NHS trusts currently stands at 40,000 vacancies in England alone but projections reveal that they could grow to over 100,000 in the next decade, posing a major threat to the ambitions of the NHS long term plan. And with risks to the inflow of nurses coming from abroad, it is even more essential to secure the supply of nurses training in the UK.

‘Most important will be addressing the financial problems that trainee nurses currently face while studying that also deter people from starting a nursing degree in the first place. And action should also be taken to increase the number of nurses training as postgraduates, including covering the cost of their tuition fees.

‘This of course won’t come for free – we, together with The King’s Fund and Nuffield Trust, have recommended that the government invest an extra £560m by 2023/34 to fund these vital measures.’

Nursing Standard Editor Flavia Munn said:

‘Behind these figures are the personal struggles of nursing students who felt they had no option other than to quit their courses.

‘We have spoken to a number of them who have recounted experiences such as ill health, money worries and feeling completely out of their depth on placements.

‘It seems perverse that amidst a crisis in nursing numbers we’re not doing more to retain the nurses of the future. The place to start to curb this exodus is with better financial support for students – and the time is now with today’s government spending review.’

Nursing Standard asked 81 UK universities offering nursing degrees for start and completion data for students on three-year pre-registration programmes for 2015-18.

A total of 59 UK universities provided data, which was analysed by the Health Foundation.

Commenting on the findings, Dame Donna Kinnair, Chief Executive and General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said:

‘There can be a whole range of reasons why somebody on an undergraduate nursing course may not finish their degree in the three years.

‘We know some may take time out for personal or family reasons and some may take time out due to the pressure. Some of these may come back and complete the course and become a much needed addition to the nursing workforce. We know, however, that some will not complete the course meaning the gap in the number of nurses we have and the number of nurses we need is not going to close.

‘One of the key reasons people do not complete their course is the pressure brought about by the lack of financial support. If we are to attract people onto nursing courses and retain them all the way through to completion the government must urgently commit to a sustained investment in nursing further education through the provision of proper tuition and maintenance support.

‘Only then can we can start to have the number of nurses we need to give our patients the treatment they deserve.’

Media contact

Simon Perry
Simon.Perry@health.org.uk
020 7257 2093

Charlotte's story:

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