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Up until August 2017 students taking certain healthcare degrees, including nursing and midwifery, were funded by NHS Bursaries – these were a package of support which included the payment of tuition fees and funding for living costs. NHS Bursaries were abolished for all new entrants starting healthcare courses in the academic year 2017/18 and these students were transferred onto the standard support system of loans for fees and maintenance.

These changes were highly controversial and concerns were expressed about the impact of these changes on recruitment to healthcare professions.

Applicants for nursing fell in the first two years after the change in funding was introduced. The number from England fell by 23% in 2017 and 12% in 2018, an overall fall of 32%. There were much smaller falls in applicants from the rest of the UK. Applicants increased by 6% in 2019 but were still well below levels from before the funding reforms.

On 18 December 2019 the Government announced that from September 2020 new and continuing nursing, midwifery and allied health professional students would receive a maintenance grant of £5,000 per year and extra payments of up to £3,000. On 19 January 2020 it was further announced that the new grants would for the first time include paramedics.

The announcement of maintenance grants came part way through the applications cycle for 2020. Applicant numbers increased by 18% in 2020, but this and the 2019 increase only partially reversed the earlier falls. The increase in applicants in 2020 is thought to be partly due to the coronavirus pandemic and the way it has underlined how highly regarded nursing is.

These trends have continued into 2021 and applicants from England for nursing at the end of January 2021 were up by 35% compared to 2019.

Applicants and entrants to nursing degrees tend to be somewhat older than most other full-time students. The drop in nursing applicants was largest among mature students and smallest among those aged under 20. However, the increase in applicants in 2020 was substantially larger among mature students.

Nursing saw the largest fall in applicants of any subject allied to medicine in 2017 and 2018. There were falls of more than 20% in applicants for nutrition, aural and oral science and medical technology.

The number of applicants from England who were accepted to nursing courses increased by 25% in 2020 to a new cord of 28,900. The largest increases were among older applicants with a 33% increase in placed applicants aged 30-34 and a 43% increase in those aged 35 and older.

There have always been many more applicants than places for nursing and the number of applicants from England who were accepted fell after the 2017 funding reforms, but by a much smaller amount than the number of applicants. Acceptances fell by 3% in 2017 and a further fall of 4% in 2018. If all part-time students are included the fall in entrants from England in 2017 was down by 13%.

The funding reforms did not affect medical and dentistry students and paramedics as these students are funded differently.

The cancellation of 2020 A-level examinations and use of centre assessed grades meant more students than expected met their grades for medical and dental school places. To alleviate pressure on places the government lifted the cap on these places in 2020-21. The number of English students accepted on medicine and dentistry courses increased by 770 or 9% in 2020.

This paper outlines the current funding system for: healthcare students, medical and dentistry students and paramedics and discusses the impact of the 2017 reforms on entrants to healthcare degrees.

Background to the reforms is given in library briefing, Reform of support for healthcare students in England, 2 February 2017.

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