Nursing has been left in "managed decline" due to decisions over funding, it has been warned, as figures show a further drop in student numbers.
The number of nursing students from England taking places at UK universities has fallen by 4% from last year and 11% since 2016 when bursaries were axed, Ucas data shows.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the decline could jeopardise the future supply of nurses.
Dame Donna Kinnair, director of nursing policy and practice at the RCN, said: "Ministers' decisions on student funding have left nursing in managed decline.
"Today's figures should be the wake-up call the Government needs to properly address the staffing crisis that's putting safe and effective patient care at risk."
Bursaries for student nurses and midwives in England were cut in 2016 and replaced with loans from August 2017.
Since then, the number of nursing students from England has fallen from 17,460 in 2016, to 16,100 in 2017, to 15,490 in 2018.
The number of mature students from England taking places at UK universities has dropped by 16% since 2016, from 7,450 over-25s to 6,260 this year.
Across the UK, there was a 2% drop in students placed, from 21,490 last year to 21,030, and an 8% decline from 2016 when there were 22,820.
Dame Donna said: "We urgently need comprehensive workforce plans that safeguard recruitment and retention and respond to patient need in each country.
"This should include a range of incentives to attract more nursing students.
"Though we will see additional students placed through clearing in the coming weeks, today's figures mean fewer nurses will enter our understaffed healthcare system in three years' time, further jeopardising patient care.
"This situation cannot be allowed to continue."
NHS England launched the biggest recruitment drive in its history in July, in a bid to attract children to the nursing profession.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: "The NHS runs on the dedication and commitment of our wonderful nurses, who work tirelessly to provide the highest quality of care for their patients.
"There are currently 52,000 nurses in NHS training with more to come thanks to our 25% increase in training places, and in a historic pay deal backed by the Royal College of Nursing we increased the starting salary of a nurse by £2,000 - helping us to recruit our NHS nurses of the future."
Almost 15,000 applicants to nursing and midwifery courses have been put into clearing, Ucas figures show.
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