COVID-19: Nursing school applications on rise, but B.C. doesn’t have spaces, staff to teach them all

Nursing schools and nurses union says there are not enough nurses being graduated to replace those retiring. And faculty are among those aging out of the profession, leaving fewer to teach

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B.C.’s nursing schools can’t keep up with the demand from prospective students, with applications up more than 30 per cent at the UBC and BCIT nursing schools over the past year.

UBC’s nursing program had a 31 per cent increase in applications for the undergraduate program and 50 per cent more applicants for their postgraduate programs over the last year, said Elizabeth Saewyc, the program’s director. That meant 860 applications for the 120 seats for the next yearly intake in September, with more than 500 already having completed the application process, that is they have submitted all necessary documents and admission requirements, Saewyc said.

Creating space for more students would require more faculty, Saewyc said, and there are more PhD nurses and others who are qualified to teach retiring than are being replaced by new qualified teachers.

“There is a global nursing shortage,” said Shelley Fraser, associate dean of BCIT’s nursing school. “We’re expecting a lot of faculty to retire over the next three to five years.”


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BCIT has had an increase in applications for its 64 seats each year and it continues to graduate nurses, including 14 that graduated last week and an estimated 50 more expected to graduate this summer, she said. But the school accepts on average just one in four applicants because of limited capacity.

COVID-19 has caused some interruptions to clinical placements, the in-hospital practicum sessions that make up part of the students’ training and education. When an outbreak restricts staff movements at a hospital, a student’s practicum could be moved online or to a simulated clinical experience, said Fraser.

First-term nursing students at BCIT learn health assessment skills at the Burnaby campus on May 13, 2021.
First-term nursing students at BCIT learn health assessment skills at the Burnaby campus on May 13, 2021. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

There are more than a dozen post-secondary institutions in B.C. offering degrees and courses in nursing.

There are 60,000 nurses, including licensed graduate nurses, licensed practical nurses, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, registered nurses with certified practicum, registered psychiatric nurses, as well as employed student nurses and employed student psychiatric nurses, and midwives in B.C., according to the B.C. College of Nurses and Midwives., a website providing statistics on nursing, put the number of nurses in B.C. in 2019 at 38,000.

The B.C. Nurses’ Union, which represents more than 48,000 professional nurses and allied health care workers, said the government’s own data says the province needs 23,000 more nurses by 2029 and are not graduating enough to meet that.


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Fraser and Saewyc estimated 1,300 to 1,400 nurses graduate each year in B.C.

Christine Sorensen, president of the B.C. Nurses’ Union, said about 40 per cent of her members will be in a position to retire in the next 10 years.

The challenges of working during COVID is taking a toll on nurses, many of whom are taking sick leave, long-term disability leaves and showing early signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, said Sorensen.

For instance, 38 per cent of nurses reported moderate to severe anxiety in a June 2020 UBC psychological health and safety survey, up from 28 per cent from the same survey in October 2019, said Sorensen.

And 41 per of nurses reported moderate to severe depression, up from 31 pre-COVID. About 60 per cent reported high emotional exhaustion, a key marker for burnout, up from 56 per cent pre-COVID. About 47 per cent met or exceeded the screening cutoff for PTSD, roughly the same as 48 per cent pre-COVID, according to the survey. And eight per cent of respondents reported considering suicide, compared to a 2.5 per cent national average, in 2020, she said.

Sorensen said the increased number of applications to nursing schools is exciting, but she worried some may be attracted to nursing because of an “idealized and heroic” depiction in fictionalized portrayals.

In reality, nurses face a heavy workload and sometimes violence on the job. But she said it’s a career that offers a “wonderful ability to connect with humanity” and is pandemic-proof.


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The province needs to develop a human resources plan that focuses on recruitment and retention and factors in the aging population and the need to prepare students for the “nursing of the future,” Sorensen said.

The Advanced Education Ministry said the government is adding the 500 new seats to nursing schools that was pledged in 2018-19. That represents a 25 per cent increase to the 2,000-plus seats offered every year by nursing programs at various B.C. public post-secondary institutions, it said.

“I am only aware of the new nursing school in Fort St. John for RNs, which was to be 32 seats but is now only 16, (beginning) this September,” Sorensen responded.

There were additional specialty education seats added through collective bargaining, which are at BCIT, but this pulls from nurses currently in practice to take on these roles,” she said.

“The question is always: What are the net new nursing seats for entry-level practitioners?” she said.

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