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Medical and dental students

Medical and dental school places are capped in each part of the UK, with “intake targets” used to limit the number of students a higher education provider may recruit in each year. There are caps for both home students and overseas/international students.

Changes to exam arrangements in 2020 – due to the Covid-19 pandemic – meant more applicants than expected met their grades for medical and dental school places. To alleviate pressure on places, the Government lifted the cap in 2020/21. The number of English students accepted on medicine and dentistry courses increased by 770, or 9%, in 2020, the number of UK students increased by 890, or 9%.

Exams were replaced by teacher assessments in 2021 and the cap on medical and dental school places was again suspended. The total number of acceptances increased by further 5% in 2021, before falling by 10% in 2022 when the cap was reintroduced.

For more information on the cap on medical and dental school places, see the Commons Library briefing The cap on medical and dental student numbers in the UK.

Student support arrangements

Across the UK, students pursuing their first degree in medicine and dentistry can generally get funding for fees and living costs in the form of loans and/or grants.

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, medical and dental students are funded in the same way as other higher education students for the first four years of their degree. In their final years, these students become eligible for a bursary, which means their tuition fees are covered and they receive non-repayable grants.

Like other students in Scotland, eligible medical students have their fees covered for the duration of their course by the Scottish Government. Eligible dental students can apply for an additional grant, which is tied to how long they stay with the NHS following graduation.

Nursing and healthcare students

Applicants for nursing fell in the first two years following the abolition of the NHS bursary for healthcare students in England. The number from England fell by 21% in 2017 and 10% in 2018, an overall fall of 19%. 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.

The announcement of a new training grant in England came part way through the applications cycle for 2020. Applicant numbers in England increased by 18% in 2020 and by a further 16% in 2021. There were also increases in applicants from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and the 2021 totals were new records for all parts of the UK. The increase in applicants in 2020 and 2021 was thought to be partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the way it has underlined the esteem in which the nursing profession is held.

Data for 2022, using a different subject classification, shows the number of UK applicants to nursing fell by 8% in 2022.

 Chart showing UK applicants to nursing courses. Numbers fell in 2017 and 2018, before recovering to a new record high in 2021. There was a fall in 2022, the first for four years   

Early data on applicants for 2023 show substantial falls in home applicants for nursing and midwifery of 20% and 22% respectively.

Nursing and midwifery saw the largest fall in applicants of any subject allied to medicine in 2017 and 2018. All the broad groups of subjects allied to medicine saw increases in applicants in 2020 and 2021. Nursing and midwifery courses had the largest drop in applicants in 2022.

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. Numbers increased in 2017 and 2018 in Scotland and Wales. There were larger increases in accepted applicants in all parts of the UK over the years 2019-2021 to a new UK record level. Numbers fell by almost 11% in 2022.

Student support arrangements

England is the only part of the UK where nursing and other healthcare students must currently pay for their own tuition (generally through student loan repayments). The governments of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland fund the tuition fees for eligible students.

Students from across the UK can access non-repayable living cost support, which generally includes some form of grant towards living costs, and additional support depending on the student’s personal circumstances. Scotland has the most generous living cost grant.

Wales is the only part of the UK that ties eligibility for student support to a commitment to working in the NHS following graduation. Students who cannot, or who do not want to, make this commitment are eligible for the standard student finance package instead.

Abolition of the NHS bursary in England for healthcare students

The last cohort of students to receive NHS Bursaries for nursing, midwifery, and other allied health profession programmes in England started their courses in September 2016. For these students, the NHS bursary included free tuition (fees were paid directly to their higher education provider by the NHS through Health Education England), a non-means tested grant of £1,000 per year, a means-tested bursary to help with living costs of up to £3,191, and additional allowances.

Following a 2016 consultation, the UK Government reformed funding for undergraduate students starting courses in nursing, midwifery, and other allied health professions from 1 August 2017. Free tuition and non-repayable living cost support was abolished, and students became eligible for the standard student finance package of tuition fee and maintenance loans.

As part of the funding reforms, the Government introduced the NHS Learning Support Fund (LSF), which initially just provided supplementary funding to parents and those in exceptional hardship. On 18 December 2019, the Government announced new and continuing nursing students would also receive an additional £5,000 training grant from September 2020.

More information is available in the full briefing. 

Further reading

Background to the reforms to student support for healthcare courses is available in the Commons Library briefing, Reform of support for healthcare students in England, 2 February 2017.

More detailed information on historic student numbers and support in England is available in the Commons Library briefing Funding for healthcare students in England, 8 March 2021.

Information on the NHS workforce in England, including key targets, recruitment and retention issues, workforce planning, and Government policy is available in the Commons Library briefing The NHS workforce in England.

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