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Nursing schools face growing shortage of applicants

Universities of Applied Sciences in Finland have seen the number of students applying for nursing courses decrease by thousands over the past few years, according to the Ministry of Education.

Although institutions have increased pathways to access the nursing degree, they still suffer from a fall in the number of applicants. Image: Karoliina Simoinen / Yle

Finnish universities are struggling to fill nursing courses despite the growing need for qualified workers in the sector, with institutions across the country reporting a sharp decrease in the number of applicants over the past few years.

Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences (JAMK) has seen numbers applying for nursing education fall by some 40 percent over the course of just three years.

Tytti Solankallio-Vahteri, Head of the Department of Healthcare at JAMK, told Yle she is concerned about this downward trend, especially as the rate of retirement continues to rise among healthcare workers.

Although JAMK has increased its course sizes as well as the number of pathways to access the nursing degree, it still suffers from a shortage of applicants, she added.

According to figures from the Ministry of Education, universities of applied sciences in Finland have seen the number of students applying for nursing courses decrease by thousands over the past few years, all while the country is facing a well-documented shortage of healthcare professionals.

"When I started my job, there were about 2.5 applicants per place, now it's just over one," said Katri Ryttyläinen-Korhonen, Director of Education at Xamk, a university of applied sciences in South-East Finland. "We've increased the number of places, but that doesn't help if you're not interested in the field of study."

Schools alone will not solve shortage

Solankallio-Vahteri said she believes the responsibility to implement changes in order to attract fresh applicants falls on employers within the sector. Korhonen echoed this sentiment, saying the current image of nursing is "frightening" and drives people away from a career in healthcare.

The decline in the number of applicants, Korhonen further noted, was likely due to a number of factors, such as working conditions, career prestige, salary, advancement opportunities as well as how the sector is portrayed in the media.

Although providing the necessary education is only part of the solution, institutions can do their share by keeping the quality of the education high, Korhonen added.

Low wages cost more

Finland could soon see the erosion of public healthcare services, with an American-style model of private health insurance taking over, according to Satu Ojala, a social policy researcher at Tampere University.

This could lead to costs for municipalities that are difficult to predict, she added, as the price of work is no longer determined by collective agreements. Healthcare workers might also quit their jobs because of the lower wages and start competing in the same way doctors have done.

The municipal sector has seen doctors moving to better-paid roles with private healthcare companies, with some local health centres moving to pay doctors higher-than-average salaries in order to secure their services. A fact that, Millariikka Rytkönen, the president of the nurses' union Tehy, referred to when rejecting the mediation committee's settlement proposal last week, as part of the ongoing dispute between healthcare workers and their employers.

Speaking to reporters, Rytkönen asked how a municipality could afford to pay a doctor more than 24,000 euros a month, but cannot cover nurses' pay rises. On several occasions, the municipal employer has said that the proposed increases are too expensive.

"Municipalities have been forced to pay doctors whatever they can. There is a risk that in future they will have to pay whatever they can to other professions," Ojala said, citing this as an example of uncontrolled wage rises.