The problem of understaffing in the NHS has been well-documented. A National Audit Office report stated that there was a shortfall of 28,000 for nurses, midwives and health visiting staff. It’s a serious issue: an overworked team is more likely to make mistakes and neglect patients.

So what’s the answer?

The government has just confirmed it is going ahead with plans to remove the bursary that student nurses receive to fund their study and help with living costs. It says this will increase the number of people training to become a nurse, as well as the number of training places on offer.

But how can increasing the price of training really lead to more nurses? It’s oddly reassuring when a question of economics comes down to a case of supply and demand.

The NHS Bursary Scheme creates a fixed supply of nurses entering the system each year. We can only train the nurses that Health Education England (HEE) can afford to fund. The table below shows the extent of the restrictions using UCAS data for applications and places offered in England.

Around 20,000 nurse training places have been offered each year since 2010, but due to the attrition rates and the number of experienced staff leaving the service, the nurse population has grown by only 2,700 over this period according to Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) staff data. In fact, the number of practicing nurses per capita for the whole of the UK fell between 2010 and 2013, according to 2015 OECD health statistics.

The government’s aim to achieve a balanced national budget means that finding additional funding for new places would be difficult. Instead, it will remove NHS bursaries in favour of a traditional student loan scheme. The government has said this will lead to 10,000 additional places between 2017 and 2020 – equivalent to 3,300 per year.

But a more affordable training scheme for the government means a transfer of burden to students. London Economics estimates that this will increase the cost to students by 71% overall. Future cohorts of nurses will, unfortunately, feel the brunt of this new policy, entering a difficult profession in debt.

So, with student loans replacing grants and tuition fees costing £9,000 per year, the question is  will there be enough people interested in a nursing career to fill  the extra training places?

UCAS data indicates that there is an overwhelming demand for nurse training: it estimates that 57,000 potential students applied for 21,450 awarded places in 2015.

If bursary reform does lead to an additional 3,300 training places per year, then HSCIC figures suggest that 62% will go into nursing – equivalent to 2,046 extra places per year on average. Therefore a total of 23,496 places could be filled per year. If the same numbers of people apply as in 2015, there would still be 2.4 applicants for every nurse training place.

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