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How to Address Rising Student Nurse Attrition

Nurses continue to make headlines across the UK following a winter marked by strikes and discontent.

Increasing rows over pay freezes pose serious threats to the government’s goal of hiring 50,000 new nurses by 2024 which is coupled by rising student nurse attrition.

A recent study, for instance, shows a spike in dropout rates among student nurses with 33% compared to 25% in previous years.

This is particularly problematic given the time frame of 2–4 years to train nurses, meaning there is little margin for error. Should student nurse retention continue to drop over the next year, there’s not enough time to onboard new talent to rectify recruitment slippages. As a result, skills shortages across the healthcare sector will only deepen.

With this in mind, Occupop, recruitment software company, explores ways in which the industry can improve student retention – from bespoke training programmes to health and wellbeing initiatives.

Domestic Supply

Numbers for those enrolling in courses remain strong with 28,245 graduates in 2021 compared to 17,241 a decade earlier. Howeverissues surround how many will complete courses and go on to employment to meet government targets. Reasons for this can include:

The proportion of students leaving courses.
Students who choose to have a break after studies before embarking on career.
New qualified nurses not working full time.

Why are students leaving?

A recent NHS study interviewed a stratum of pre-registration nurses to establish the main reasons behind nursing students leaving training. The main reasons were:

Academic concerns about keeping up with uploads,
Stress and feelings of being overwhelmed,
Students doubting their clinical ability,
Lack of engagement.

How can retention be improved?

Statistically, year 1 and year 2 students in addition to those six months into year 3 were at the highest risk of dropping out compared to postgraduates or those in pre-registration. Retention activity and hiring systems should therefore be tapered according to year of study. Suggestions include:

Boosting confidence with training

72% of respondents were shown to experience difficulty with online learning. Specialist training should be employed to ensure students can achieve the necessary learning outcomes when offsite to be clinically competent when qualifying. Typically, nursing students fit a different academic profile compared to other undergraduates. Many are more likely to be applying as mature students with a 24.7% year-on-year rise in students aged 25 to 29 with a 40.1% rise in those students aged 35 and above from 2019 to 2020. There’s also a greater chance of them hailing from areas with lower levels of HE participation. Systems should be in place to acknowledge this and support students where appropriate.

Health and wellbeing

One of the leading causes of student attrition is stress and academic anxiety. Higher education is a stressful experience at the best of times – moving away from home and adapting to new learning styles while healthcare students have the added stress of working in clinical environments. Institutions should offer support through health and wellbeing initiatives such as the Work, Relax and Play programme, which aims to improve mental health and emotional resilience. Other support could include dedicated student counsellors, self-help apps, greater leniency over deadlines, and further guidance for managers to support teams.

Flexible working

As stated, nursing students often fit a different academic profile to other undergraduates with many having dependents, established careers or simply not enough time to dedicate to full-time student life.

Universities should recognise this by offering courses of varying lengths. Currently, there are very few part-time nursing courses which may heighten the intensity of a course which requires significant mental, physical and emotional stamina.

Flexible working where students may work fewer hours or complete admin-based tasks at home may help to lighten the pressure on students or provide further downtime for mature students with substantial life or childcare commitments.






Welsh NHS: More strikes threatened as nurses reject offer – BBC News

50,000 Nurses Programme: delivery update – GOV.UK (

Reducing Pre-registration Attrition and Improving Retention | Health Education England (

Occupop_Healthcare Report 2023.pdf (

Simple Recruitment Software For SMBs | Occupop

Work, Relax and Play: a wellbeing programme for student nurses | Nursing Times

How to prevent a nursing student retention crisis | Wonkhe

Analysis: Student numbers rise but retention challenges remain | Nursing Times

Latest data confirms ‘record’ rise in nursing students for 2020 | Nursing Times