Universities report surge in interest in nursing degrees

Applications, acceptances and searches soar during the Covid-19 crisis

UK universities have reported a surge in interest in nursing degrees during the Covid-19 crisis.

Compared with the same period last year, applications for nursing courses have increased by as much as 88% in some cases, with an accompanying spike in web traffic to the relevant pages on providers’ websites.

University Business spoke to several universities whose experiences reinforce the news from NHS Careers in May that it had seen a 220% increase in people expressing an interest in becoming a nurse.

This led the chief executive of NHS England Sir Simon Stevens to call for the number of available nursing degree places to be expanded to meet a “surge in interest” in the profession in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Applications “flooding in”

The University of Derby received 200 more applications for all nursing degrees between 1 March and 3 June 2020 than during the same period last year, representing an 88% increase. Even discounting applications for the provider’s new children’s nursing programme, which begins in September, the increase in applications to adult nursing and mental health nursing degrees has risen by 77% during that period.

Ruth Girdham, head of the school of nursing and healthcare leadership at the University of Bradford reported an increase of more than 300 applications to nursing degree programmes compared with the same period last year, saying applications to adult, mental health and children’s nursing had “been flooding in” over the course of the pandemic.

University of the West England (UWE) saw a 53% increase in applications for its undergraduate nursing and midwifery courses between the end of January 2020 and early June 2020 compared with the corresponding period in 2019.

Sheffield Hallam University has experienced a 16% increase in the number of nursing and midwifery course applications in 2020 compared to the same period last year. The provider published a survey with YouGov on 12 May that revealed that around one-in-three adults would now consider working in an NHS healthcare role due to the NHS’ response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Anglia Ruskin University has seen a surge in interest in courses such as adult nursing and midwifery during the Covid-19 pandemic. Web traffic to these course pages has increased by 114% year-on-year. During the period from 1 April until 11 May, visits to ARU’s midwifery course page rose by 132% on the same period in 2019; for adult nursing, the number of visits was up 93% on the same time last year. There have also been significant increases in traffic to course pages of other health subjects such as mental health nursing, child nursing, medicine and paramedic science. Applications from prospective students for nursing courses and midwifery have also increased year-on-year.

There has been an increase in interest across all health-related courses at Buckinghamshire New University, especially for its adult and mental health programmes. “This has led to a steady increase in applications, with an additional rise since the beginning of May,” said Professor Karen Buckwell-Nutt, head of school for nursing and allied health at the university.

“Applications are also up for our other health-related courses including operating department practice, public health and social work. From September, we’re offering a new route into nursing with a two-year nursing associate foundation degree (with NMC registration).

“Applicants have longer to make their decisions this year, due to the disruption of Covid-19, and it’s clear that they’re taking this time to gather information so they can make considered choices. We’ve been delighted to see strong engagement with our virtual open days for nursing.”

A spokesperson for Northumbria University confirmed it, too, had seen a significant increase in interest in nursing subjects received between January and May 2020 versus the same period in 2019.

Even providers who did not report a spike in interest, said that actual acceptances onto programmes were significantly up. “It may be that there is an emerging, increased interest in nursing as a career but at this stage the potential applicants are exploring routes into nursing and the qualifications required and the impact may be seen in the numbers next year,” said Dr Caroline Sargisson head of recruitment, professional programmes, at Middlesex University.

“However, we do not seem to have been negatively affected by the outbreak as our number of acceptances onto the programmes is up by 23% on this time last year and 15% of this increase is in acceptances onto our adult nursing programme.”

Caring and wanting to help and support each other are qualities that have come to the fore in recent times and these are qualities that are essential to nursing – Ruth Girdham, University of Bradford

The correlation between the surge in interest in nursing degrees and the Covid-19 pandemic is believed by many providers to be largely down to a groundswell of support and goodwill towards the profession manifested through the weekly Clap for our Carers event, rainbow displays in homes and businesses and other tributes to NHS workers.

“Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen unprecedented recognition of the vital services provided by our healthcare workers,” said Professor Nigel Harrison, pro-vice-chancellor and dean of the faculty of health, education, medicine and social care at Anglia Ruskin University. “It has shone a light on the incredible job that people in these professions do every day.

“This recognition is fully justified, and we are pleased to see that more people are showing an interest in entering these professions.”

Professor Karen Buckwell-Nutt at Buckinghamshire New University said: “I think there’s increased recognition and esteem for the NHS and nursing profession because of the incredible efforts and dedication of all frontline workers during the Covid-19 outbreak.

“Our students on placements at NHS Trusts tell me it’s been a challenging time but they’ve learnt so much and take pride in their contribution to the crisis. I’m so proud of our nursing students who’ve impressed our partners in the NHS with their professionalism, commitment and willingness to provide support.”

Dr Paula Holt, pro-vice-chancellor and dean of the college of health and social care at the University of Derby, added: “Although we have not qualitatively measured the impact of the pandemic as a motivation for recent applications, we are seeing a greater proportion of successful conversions following interviews, demonstrating that applicants are well-prepared, and clear and considered about their reasons for wanting to pursue a career in nursing.”

“I think the support demonstrated for healthcare professionals working in these unprecedented circumstances, with the weekly clapping, has raised the profile of nursing and other healthcare workers,” said Ruth Girdham of the University of Bradford.

“The nature of nursing has been well-publicised over the pandemic and stories of nurses working on the frontline have obviously made an impact on people.

“Caring and wanting to help and support each other are qualities that have come to the fore in recent times and these are qualities that are essential to nursing.”

Last December the government said it would provide annual payments of at least £5,000 to all undergraduate and postgraduate students from eligible nursing, midwifery and allied health courses as of September 2020, as part of its pledge to increase nurse numbers by 50,000 over the next five years.

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