A quarter of all student nurses are dropping out of their degrees before graduation, according to a new investigation, adding to concerns around falling NHS staff 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 16,544 UK nursing students who began three-year degrees due to finish in 2017, 4,027 left their courses early or suspended their studies.

This gives an average attrition rate of 24% in the UK.

Figures from a Nursing Standard investigation in 2006 put the attrition rate at 24.8%, suggesting that attempts to address the issue over the last decade have had little effect.

Nursing workforce expert James Buchan, professor in the health and sciences faculty at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University says: ‘Student nurse attrition has been for many years identified as a major problem for the UK, both in terms of the negative impact on individuals who leave programmes early, and also for the system at large, given nursing shortages are so prominent and increasing.’

Ben Gershlick, Senior Economics Analyst at the Health Foundation says: ‘While the attrition rate has remained fairly constant over the last decade, its impact is becoming more severe bearing in mind the overall shortage of nurses, vacancies in nursing posts and rising demand pressures on the NHS. The need for nurses trained in the UK has also increased as we have seen a recent fall in the inflow of nurses coming from abroad.

‘Reducing attrition should be a crucial aspect of our overall approach to workforce planning. The long-term plan for the health service, which is currently in development, and the workforce strategy expected from Health Education England, need to bring a much more joined-up and strategic approach.’

Nursing Standard editor Lynn Eaton says: ‘Nursing is a great career. Despite all we hear about the problems in the NHS and the changes in funding students while they study, it’s still a very attractive option.

‘However, the drop-out rate, shown by our survey, is a major concern. We need to recruit enough nurses to meet the needs of our growing older population. But we also need to make sure we’re training the right people for those roles. Some students will, sadly, realise it’s not for them.’

The Royal College of Nursing says bad experiences on clinical placements, financial difficulties and academic pressures all contribute to attrition.

Last year, government replaced the NHS bursary for student nurses with a tuition fees and loans system, which experts say has affected the number of students taking up places on degree programmes.

Nursing Standard asked 74 UK universities offering nursing degrees for start and completion data for students on three-year pre-registration programmes for 2014-17.

A total of 55 universities provided data, which was analysed by the Health Foundation.

Read the full article in Nursing Standard

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