Universities struggle to fill nursing courses despite healthcare worker shortage

While hospitals and aged care homes are desperate for workers, applications to degrees are dropping, a trend some nursing in the sector have described as “incredibly concerning”.

Tom Ristoski, director of industry partnerships at Perth’s Notre Dame University, said nursing degree places had been much slower to fill recently.

He said places for the university’s upcoming mid-year intake were close to being filled but enrollments had been slow.

“It is taking longer to fill courses and I think we’re getting fairly close but normally by now they would be completely full and oversubscribed,” Mr Ristoski told ABC Radio Perth’s Nadia Mitsopoulos.

“There are other universities that I’ve spoken to that are saying that it has been harder to fill [courses]. More of them are now filling them but it has been much more challenging than it’s been in the past.”

He said the decline in demand may be due to the pandemic and the well-publicised pressures on the healthcare sector over the past two years.

“I think the concern for potential students is probably around COVID, the COVID impacts and the challenges that they’ve seen in the industry,” he said.

A nurse prepares for surgery wearing blue scrubs and a surgical mask and pulling on a pair of gloves in an operating theatre.
Tom Ristoski says the impact COVID has had on the sector may have deterred some potential students from studying nursing.(Rawpixel: Chanikarn Thongsupa)

Mr Ristoski said the university was trying to adapt training to make it easier for students to complete a nursing degree.

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“We’ve got programs in place where students who are in year two [of their course] can work in a setting and get paid for that as assistants in nursing, whilst they learn on-the-job skills,” he said

“We’ve got accelerated programs now for people who have allied skills, and we can quickly get them into nursing. They may not need to do the full degree.”

Staff shortages already biting hard

He said research into staff shortages at Catholic health providers throughout Australia showed there were alreadys of registered nurses, with the shortfall most acute in aged care.

Clare Grieveson, chief executive of aged care group Southern Cross Care, said the slackening of demand from prospective nursing students was “incredibly concerning”.

“The aged care sector already has a workforce crisis,” Ms Grieveson said.

“The impact of those vacancies is that beds need to be closed.

“A report was commissioned by a group of aged-care CEOs showed that last year, staff shortages prevented 340 elderly WA residents from entering aged care.

With the federal government set to introduce rules that require aged care facilities to have a registered nurse on site 24/7, Ms Grieveson said it was unclear how all those shifts would be filled.

“At Southern Cross Care, we have 4,000 shifts that we need to fill every single week, and 11 per cent of those have a vacancy next to them,” she said.

“We are short about 12 registered nurses at the moment; these are roles that we can’t fill.”

Calls for flexibility and financial assistance

Callers to ABC Radio Perth said more flexibility and the ability to be paid for practical work would make study a more attractive option.

Talkback caller Jill said she began a nursing degree last year but gave up the course.

“The main one reason was that I’m actually a physio and I wasn’t able to get any credits whatsoever for any of my prior learning, because my degree was older than six years,” she said.

“I got the award for the best student at the university for the year [at the time] but I wasn’t able to get any further acknowledgments.

“With a young child, I couldn’t have the time off.”

A nursing home resident in Brisbane sits in a common area, November 18, 2013.
The nurse shortage is most acute in aged care, providers say.(ABC News: Nic MacBean)

Joanne said her daughter was currently in the second year of a nursing degree but faced financial pressure when doing full-time practical placements, because it meant she was unable to attend part-time job.

“Our concern is that when she goes to her pracs, which can be between six to eight weeks, there is no pay,” she said.

“Financially, it’s really hard for these kids to support themselves.”

She would like to see students paid for the on-the-job training they do, rather than unpaid placements.

Annelise, who is 42 and about to start a nursing diploma to become a enrolled nurse this week, suggested that a nursing career might be more attractive to mature-aged people rather than school leavers.

“It’s a complete career change. My reflection would be that I think it is something that would suit a drive towards the mature age student, particularly mums who are coming out of those younger years,” she said.

“The reason I’m not going directly into a university degree is flexibility.

“Colleges and diplomas allow for blended learning, so you don’t have as many contact hours, which obviously just makes it a lot easier.

“You can then bypass the first year of university and go straight into the second year if you want to go down that road.

“And the diplomas are a lot cheaper as well.”


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