From education to employment

Huge interest among young people in NHS careers

  • Almost three-quarters of young people are considering or have considered healthcare careers with ‘improving the lives of others’ the main appealing factor.
  • But there are several significant factors which the majority of young people say would put them off a healthcare career including perceptions of long hours, high pressure and low pay.
  • Universities UK and the Nuffield Trust say health leaders and the UK Government must capitalise on strong interest in healthcare careers, as universities stand ready to support plans for a massive increase in the size of the NHS workforce.

A major new survey, published today, shows that ambitious plans to recruit thousands of extra healthcare professionals will likely only succeed if greater financial support is offered to students and these careers are made more appealing.

The Censuswide survey, commissioned by Universities UK and analysed by the Nuffield Trust, spoke to more than 5,000 young people across the UK, aged between 16 and 26. It found that 73% are considering or have considered a career in healthcare, with nursing (39%), medicine (35%), and midwifery (22%) the most popular courses for these respondents and those who already work in healthcare. Improving the lives of others (46%) is the reason most often given for their interest in these careers, closely followed by having a rewarding career (40%).   

Around three-quarters of respondents said they would be more likely to choose to study a healthcare course at university if they received additional financial support (e.g. grants and loans) while studying (cited by 72%) or if they were paid for their clinical placements (73%). Universities UK is calling for maintenance support to keep up with the increased cost of living to relieve financial pressures on healthcare students. 

The survey also shows that the vast majority are being put off embarking on healthcare careers because of perceptions of low pay (90%), poor work/life balance (82%), stress of the job (79%), and long working hours (75%)5.

Universities are already working closely with the UK Government and health leaders to increase supply to meet growing need in the health service, and to implement the long-term workforce plan in England. The central tenet of the plan, which has widespread political support, is to embark on the biggest recruitment drive in health service history but this requires sufficient people enrolling onto clinical courses and working in the NHS on graduation.  

To meet the nation’s future healthcare needs, clinical professionals will be needed in a broad range of fields and from across the UK, so universities are working hard and together to recruit students from a more diverse range of backgrounds, for example through partnerships between different institutions to open campuses in areas where there are shortages of medical professionals [see case studies in Notes].

The survey suggests strong interest among the most disadvantaged, as those eligible for free school meals are more likely to consider healthcare careers than those who have never been eligible other respondents (78 v 70%)6. However, young people whose parents did not go to university are less likely to consider studying medicine (30%) than those who had one parent (35%) or both parents (42%) that went to university7.

Only 20% of respondents claimed to be ‘very familiar’ with the variety of career options available within the NHS beyond becoming a doctor or nurse, showing a pressing need to promote the diversity of healthcare careers available, in schools and elsewhere, across the country.

Alongside efforts to recruit the healthcare professionals of the future, universities are looking to make the most of robotics, artificial intelligence, and immersive technology to transform training , with initiatives ranging from virtual community placements to dental simulators.

In October 2023, Universities UK, published a position paper with a series of recommendations for making healthcare education and careers more appealing, including: 

  • additional wellbeing support for students,  
  • better coaching and mentoring of students,  
  • investment in new facilities and technologies,  
  • improving the quality and choice of placements,  
  • and greater financial help for those studying from low-income families.  

Professor Alistair Fitt, Universities UK’s health policy lead, and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, said: 

“The good news from this survey is the strong interest among young people for rewarding healthcare careers. With broad political support to significantly increase the number of healthcare staff, the challenge is how we make NHS careers attainable for many more potential students.

“The health service needs a pipeline of talent to be able to provide high-quality care.

Universities have a vital role in training that talent and stand ready to deliver through innovative approaches to education and training. However, without bold and urgent change, ambitious plans for the future of the NHS in England are set to fall flat.”  

Dr Billy Palmer, Senior Fellow at the Nuffield Trust, commented:

“The survey is a reminder of how perceptions of poor working conditions in the NHS can throw our chances of achieving a sustainable, homegrown supply of clinical staff into jeopardy.

It not only highlights the need for additional support and more positive perceptions of clinical careers but also brings into stark relief the factors behind the avoidably high leaver rates during degrees and early on in clinicians’ careers.

“The survey also points at solutions, with around three-quarters8 of young people more likely to choose to study a health care course at university if their tuition fees could be written off for working in the NHS. We have previously argued that a student loans forgiveness scheme is an instant and affordable way to increase the number of applications to clinical courses as well as reducing the numbers leaving during training or early in their career.”

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