Health care students could be 1 in 6 of those starting higher education by 2031/32 under NHS workforce plan

Extra 50,000 training places needed to meet NHS ambitions over next decade

New analysis published today by the Health Foundation shows the scale of the challenge facing universities and health care providers as they prepare to expand the intake of clinical students to meet the commitments set out in the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan. 

The new workforce plan sets out welcome commitments to tackle staff shortages and meet future NHS workforce needs by significantly increasing training places for NHS clinical professionals. The analysis shows that, on current trends, the proportion of first-year higher education students in England training to be NHS clinical professionals would need to increase by 50 per cent, from 1 in 9 of the total first year student intake in 2022/23 (76,300 students) to 1 in 6 (125,700 students) in 2031/32. 

The analysis highlights the speed at which universities and the NHS will need to expand capacity to meet the Plan’s commitments, and the implications for the workforce needed to train the doctors and nurses of the future. It calls for more detail on how the funding of these commitments will be phased and implemented, and on how universities and employers will be engaged. The analysis also emphasises the importance of making the NHS a more attractive place to work to ensure that students take up expanded training places in sufficiently large numbers. 

Nursing and midwifery training intakes (including nursing associates and health visitors) would increase by around 32,000, from 40,400 in 2022/23 to 72,400 by 2031/32. Medical school places would increase by 7,500 to a total of 15,000 by 2031/32. Adding in the projected increases in the number of midwives, allied health professionals and other clinical roles, the total intake of clinical students would increase to around 125,700 in 2031/32, up from 76,300 in 2022/23 (excluding GP specialty trainees).  

To deliver on the plans, universities and NHS providers will need to ensure there are sufficient teaching staff to deliver the expanded training and provide sufficient clinical placements to enable on-the-job training, the authors note. They also underline that, while the expansion in training is essential to address current staff shortages and meet future demand for care, it must be fully funded in future years and supported by concerted action to improve NHS staff retention. 

Given there are currently no plans to expand the overall number of student places, the findings also highlight the potential impact of the expansion in NHS training on the supply of university-educated workers in other sectors. The analysis assumes that the average annual growth rate for overall first-year student enrolments (1.1% a year from 2014/15–2019/20) will stay the same, while the proportion of health care student enrolments will rise significantly. 

Nihar Shembavnekar, Economist at the Health Foundation’s REAL Centre, said: ‘The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan is a major milestone and is rightly ambitious about increasing the number of trained NHS staff.  However, the implications for universities and health care providers, and the speed at which they will need to increase capacity for training health care workers, should not be underestimated.  

‘Boosting health care training places is vital to address chronic staff shortages and meet the future needs of the NHS but it is just as crucial to improve staff retention. The government should also commit to the long-term capital investment needed to give the NHS the modern buildings, equipment, and technology it desperately needs to make the plan work.’  


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