But unions say the numbers are still “nowhere near” enough to end the ”staffing crisis” facing the nursing sector.
The warning comes as another report from the Health Foundation charity says the NHS is relying on less qualified staff to plug workforce gaps due to a huge shortage of nurses.
At present, there are almost 44,000 nursing vacancies across the NHS (12 per cent of the nursing workforce), but this could hit 100,000 vacancies in a decade as thousands of nurses opt to retire or leave the profession, the report warns.
The latest Ucas figures show there were 54,225 applications to study nursing in 2019, compared to 50,805 applications last year. But the numbers are still lower than 2016 when 66,730 applied.
In 2017, the government removed nursing bursaries, requiring nurses and midwives in England to pay £9,000 a year in fees and living costs, which led to the drop in the numbers studying nursing.
But this year universities across the UK accepted a record number of students onto degree courses – 30,390 in total, compared to 28,540 last year.
Recent recruitment campaigns by the NHS and a growth in younger applicants considering a career in nursing are likely to be behind the rise, a report from Ucas says.
The figures come after the Conservatives were criticised when it emerged that 18,500 of the 50,000 extra nurses promised in their election manifesto would be coming from retaining existing nurses.
Patricia Marquis, director for England at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “This modest good news still shows England’s nurse training levels are nowhere near reaching the scale and pace required to end the nurse staffing crisis.”
Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, added: “Even with this increase more nurses are still leaving the NHS each year than students starting courses.
“Almost a quarter leave before qualifying, often because of financial hardship and growing student debt.”
Dr Katerina Kolyva, executive director of the Council of Deans of Health, which represents universities in nursing, midwifery and allied health professionals, warned: “There is still more work to be done to increase the numbers of students choosing these very rewarding careers to meet the rising demand for health and social care services across the UK.
“We continue to call the introduction of maintenance grants for healthcare students to support recruitment and retention.”
The Ucas figures also revealed that around half of school-leavers were accepted onto degree courses with A-level grades lower than the advertised entry requirements this year.
Students from the poorest backgrounds were more likely to take up places with lower grades than advertised compared to all undergraduates nationally, the latest data shows.
This may be due to “contextualised offers” – in which an institution takes into account a student’s schooling and background when deciding whether to make an offer, the admission service said.
Claire Sosienski Smith, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS) said: “We of course welcome the increase in offers and applicants this year, however the education sector cannot afford to be complacent.
“Applications have increased markedly more in Scotland and Wales than in England, which could show the appeal of a fairer and more generous maintenance package to applicants.
“England has become the outlier within the UK for its lack of non-repayable maintenance support. This is something that NUS and representatives of the education sector are calling on the next government to change.”
Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, said: “Today’s report shows the unprecedented opportunity for anyone currently thinking of applying to university to be ambitious with their choices.
“The trends identified through our analysis are very likely to continue into this year, with universities, colleges, and schools continuing to support students from a variety of backgrounds.”
Additional reporting by Press Association