Health and Healthcare Systems

Record numbers of people in the UK have applied to study nursing

image of a nurse wearsing a watch and stethoscope at St Thomas' Hospital in central London

There has been a significant increase in the number of people applying to study nursing. Image: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Sean Fleming
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • More than 60,000 people in the UK have applied to study nursing.
  • The US needs an additional 176,000 new nurses per year.
  • Nurses all over the world remain poorly paid in comparison with many other occupations.

Applications to join the nursing profession in the UK are soaring. In the past year, the number of people applying to study to become a nurse has risen by almost a third to more than 60,000. There has also been increased interest in related disciplines, including dentistry and medicine.

By comparison, interest in some more traditional academic subjects like history, philosophy and classics is waning.

Potential explanations for this increase in interest are twofold. In part, it might be that students are seeking out careers they think could offer more job security in the future. With digital technology and automation set to continue to disrupt many workplaces, a more predictable career may have a certain appeal. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) could be seen by some as a “safer” bet, along with the ongoing need for dentists, doctors and nurses adding to the sense of stability.

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Interest in nursing

But another reason appears to be an increased recognition of the work of the medical professions due to the pandemic. That’s the view of Ruth May, chief nursing officer for NHS England. “This surge in interest from people of all ages wanting to study nursing is incredible and is great news for the public and the health service,” she said.

“During COVID-19 the level of interest in working for the NHS has trumped lots of other career options, and that speaks volumes about how people recognise our profession, particularly following our most challenging year.”


Interest in nursing has fired the imaginations of a diverse range of age groups, too, according to figures from the UK body that oversees university applications, UCAS.

For 2021, there was a record number of applications from school-leavers aged 18 – 16,560 applicants, up 27% on 2020’s figure. The number of applications from mature students – those aged 35+ – rose by 39% to 10,770. It’s the first time more than 10,000 people from that age bracket have applied to study nursing.

Burnout and moral distress

In the US, however, the picture is a little different. Over the coming decade, the country is expected to need an additional 175,900 new registered nurses every year.

And according to Theresa Brown – an author and nurse writing in The New York Times about the pressures being felt on the nursing front line – there is some doubt as to whether those roles could be filled.

“The shortage was predicted even before the coronavirus pandemic,” she writes. “Aging baby boomers create a larger population of patients in need of care, and a large number of nurses over 50 will retire soon. Nursing schools don’t have enough faculty to expand the nursing workforce.”

A survey of US nurses undertaken by the medical-tech company NurseGrid found that “22% of respondents plan to leave bedside care – or the profession itself – in 2021.” That’s perhaps not surprising, given another US study, 'Self-care strategies in response to nurses’ moral injury during COVID-19 pandemic', which says: “Many nurses and healthcare professionals are likely to experience post-traumatic stress as a consequence of serving during the COVID-19 crisis.”

Overworked and under-resourced, nurses have often found themselves with feelings of burnout and fatigue.

“People go to the hospital because they need the care of nurses. Without them, there is no care. But nurses are not an infinitely elastic resource; they’re people, many of whom are exhausted, traumatized, barely holding themselves together. It’s time to really see and care for them,” Theresa Brown writes.

It’s a sentiment borne out by the self care strategies report, which found that: “Most nurses in the US and other wealthy countries have little experience practicing medicine in a compromised, overwhelming situation like the one COVID-19 has created.” Pushed to the point of feeling they cannot offer the care they have been trained to give, many nurses are struggling emotionally and psychologically.

Growing global inequalities

Such experiences dominate the lives of nurses in many parts of the world where resources, equipment and personnel are all in short supply. In a report called 'The Inequality Virus', the global charity Oxfam looks at how the pandemic has ushered in an era of increased inequalities in almost every country.

Nurses are a key focus area of the report. In its foreword, Fikile Dikolomela-Lengene, Deputy President of South Africa’s Young Nurses Trade Union, writes: “As health and other essential workers, we have something else in common: we are overworked, underpaid, undervalued and often not protected, even in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

“We are overwhelmingly women, Black, and People of Colour. Many of us are migrants, people from ethnic minorities or from other groups that are pushed to the margins of society, and yet expected to keep our systems standing.”

a diagram explaining that a top paid asset manager earns 1,400 times more than a newly qualified nurse
Do we really value caregivers? Image: Oxfam

The report goes on to call for a recalibration of the financial recompense and says salaries given to nurses ought to reflect the value the profession offers society. Oxfam cites a report from the European Banking Authority which compared the pay of asset managers and nurses in the UK. The $43.2 million paid to the former was 1,400 times greater than that of a newly qualified nurse.

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