Creating a workforce for the future

10 November 2023

In conjunction with our 2024 General Election Manifesto, the Council is releasing a series of blogs which explore the underlying principles and four asks in more depth.

The third blog in the series is by Amelia Canning, Policy Officer, and Ed Hughes, CEO, Council of Deans of Health.

In recent years, there has been an overall decline in applications to many undergraduate healthcare courses. Although in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to an increased interest in health careers, and the sector saw a 22% rise in applicants to nursing courses across the UK, since 2020 numbers have been in steady decline, and have now dropped below pre-covid levels. In order to meet workforce demand and supply the NHS with skilled professionals this significant decline in applications for healthcare courses needs a transformational change of approach to be turned around quickly. To ensure this continued pipeline into the workforce, it is important to consider the key factors affecting recruitment to healthcare courses.

At the same time, universities have also seen an increase in students dropping out of courses or taking periods of extended absence. Currently, there is limited conclusive empirical data on factors affecting progression, but evidence shows the cost-of-living crisis, poor mental health, declining morale, and negative experiences in practice impact on students’ decision to continue their course. It is important to consider how to address these hurdles and increase the number of students continuing their courses.

Perception of healthcare sector

Due to various reasons such as negative media attention and strains on the NHS, many prospective and current students no longer see a career in health and social care as desirable. The shroud of negative attention around the healthcare professions means it can be tricky to see the many positives a career in the NHS can provide, and how enriching an experience being a healthcare professional can be. It is important to re-align the narrative to emphasise the many benefits of working in healthcare, in order to attract prospective students to professions.

Additionally, those already studying careers in healthcare often have a different experience of university compared to those on non-healthcare courses, and healthcare students face challenges many other students do not. This can be caused by the demanding time commitment precluding part-time work and extracurricular activity. Additional upfront costs, such as accommodation and travel to placement, put additional financial pressures on these students most others will not face. Additionally, the nature of these roles often links to expectations of emotional resilience. Over the past few years, a series of events such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis have taken a toll on the mental health of students across the UK. Attending placement and being on the front lines experiencing these issues has had a significant effect on the mental health of healthcare students in particular, and these students often carry a heavier emotional burden than the average student. These factors may have a more significant effect on those from under-represented backgrounds in higher education, which make up a large number of the healthcare student population. Appropriate and effective financial and wellbeing support must be implemented to support these students through their time at university.

Awareness of professions

Often, prospective students will be unaware of the range of roles that exist in healthcare, particularly amongst the allied health professions, despite many efforts to address this. In order to grow the workforce, it is important to highlight the wide range of exciting careers across the health and social care sector. Career routes within professions, such as into community care, social care, academia and research roles, also need clearer explanation. The result of effective advertising has been seen through other professions, particularly through visual media, and advertising for healthcare careers should be approached in the same way. It is also important to highlight all routes into professions, including courses delivered through further education colleges and degree apprenticeships.

Reaching out to communities

Outreach interventions to reach under-represented communities, who may be unaware of the benefits of a career in healthcare, are invaluable. Healthcare courses often attract students under-represented groups and healthcare courses are an important vehicle to enhance opportunity. This means initiatives to reach under-engaged communities are particularly important in recruiting to healthcare education, to ensure a consistent pipeline to the workforce and to continue enhancing social mobility. Additionally, some prospective students may struggle to access healthcare careers due to living in a remote or rural community. It is important that any outreach interventions consider how to reach those further in distance from universities, who may be more likely to proceed through a non-traditional route such as an apprenticeship or distance learning course, or via provision in more locally based Further Education colleges.

Joined-up recruitment campaigns

The importance of the healthcare student community and their role in defining the future of the NHS workforce cannot be underemphasised. The many benefits of a career in health and social care must be made more visible, alongside the breadth of careers available, to enhance recruitment and retain students within these professions.  The Council calls for a concerted advertising campaign and resources at both local and national level to signpost the many routes and career opportunities healthcare courses can offer to UK students.

Ahead of the upcoming general election, the Council has been working with the major political parties to share our key policy priorities. The Council calls for:

  • A focused advertising campaign and resources highlighting the varied career routes and opportunities that healthcare courses can offer to UK students
  • A cross-departmental joint approach to further financial and pastoral support for healthcare students

Although the upcoming election centres around Westminster, it will have implications for the rest of the UK. Whilst the processes and funding for NMAHP students differs in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, there are many shared challenges – both for universities and students. A joined-up approach across all four nations will have the greatest impact across the UK. Similarly, the Council calls for a cross-departmental joint approach to further financial and pastoral support for healthcare students, in order to deliver the workforce of the future.

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