One in four student nurses are dropping out of their degrees before graduation, figures show.
Data obtained by nursing journal Nursing Standard and the charity the Health Foundation indicates that of 16,544 UK nursing students who began three-year degrees due to finish in 2017, 4,027 left their courses early or suspended their studies.
With the health service struggling to cope with a massive shortage of nurses, estimated at 40,000 vacant posts in England alone, they warned that the number of student nurses not qualifying could be exacerbating the NHS staffing crisis.
They said the figures they obtained give an average attrition rate of 24%.
Data from a Nursing Standard investigation in 2006 put the attrition rate at 24.8%, which it said suggests that attempts to address the issue over the last decade have had little effect.
Bad experiences on clinical placements, financial difficulties and academic pressures are all known to contribute to student nurses dropping out.
Nursing workforce expert Professor James Buchan (pictured), of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, said: "Student nurse attrition has been for many years identified as a major problem for the UK, both in terms of the negative impact on individuals who leave programmes early, and also for the system at large, given nursing shortages are so prominent and increasing."
Last year, the Government replaced the NHS bursary for student nurses with a tuition fees and loans system, which experts say has also affected the number of students taking up places on degree programmes.
Ben Gershlick, senior economics analyst at the Health Foundation, said: "While the attrition rate has remained fairly constant over the last decade, its impact is becoming more severe bearing in mind the overall shortage of nurses, vacancies in nursing posts and rising demand pressures on the NHS.
"The need for nurses trained in the UK has also increased as we have seen a recent fall in the inflow of nurses coming from abroad.
"Reducing attrition should be a crucial aspect of our overall approach to workforce planning.
"The long-term plan for the health service, which is currently in development, and the workforce strategy expected from Health Education England, need to bring a much more joined-up and strategic approach."
Nursing Standard editor Lynn Eaton said the high drop-out rate is a "major concern".
"Nursing is a great career," she added.
"Despite all we hear about the problems in the NHS and the changes in funding students while they study, it's still a very attractive option.
"We need to recruit enough nurses to meet the needs of our growing older population.
"But we also need to make sure we're training the right people for those roles.
"Some students will, sadly, realise it's not for them."
Nursing Standard asked 74 UK universities offering nursing degrees for start and completion data for students on three-year pre-registration programmes for 2014-17.
A total of 55 universities provided data, which was analysed by the Health Foundation.
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