Nursing programs see record applications across Ontario

Princess Jibrin

When Princess Jibrin told her mom she was interested in following her path and pursuing a career in nursing, she says the response was a mix of excitement and caution.

She will work some 14-hour days, Jibrin’s mom, a recently retired critical care nurse in Hamilton, Ont., told her. She will see things that take a toll on her mental health — things that “break” her, she recalled of the conversation.

But Jibrin says nursing is her calling.

“You’re going to be doing what you love and you’re going to be helping people at the end of the day,” she said.

Jibrin is one of the thousands of people who applied for a spot at an Ontario nursing school this fall, as some programs report a record number of applicants. The Nigerian-born, Hamilton-raised 23-year-old accepted an offer to George Brown’s practical nursing program starting this fall.

The Council of Ontario Universities says more than13,000 people applied to a university nursing program in 2022 — up around 8 per cent compared to 2021, and 25 per cent compared to 2018 and 2019.

Colleges received a record number of applicants to nursing diploma programs this year. More than 12,000 people applied to those programs in 2022, a 14 per cent increase over 2021, and a 25 per cent increase compared to 2018.

Educators and post-secondary groups say those strong application numbers have been driven by the media attention on pandemic-era front-line workers and the promise of available jobs.

“I’m never going to, I think, have too much trouble finding a job if I have those nursing credentials,” said Jibrin, a Western University sociology grad who completed a pre-health program earlier this year.

Janet McCabe

But while the first months of the pandemic spotlighted the valour of nursing, more than two years later, educators are grappling with how to prepare students for the current realities of the job. Clinical placements can be hard to find and reports of critical staffing shortages and record-levels of burnout are abundant. And while program interest is high, the programs rely on government funds to open up more spots.

Health-care job vacancies across the country are at an all-time high, according to recent data from Statistics Canada, with nursing roles reporting the largest increases. Even before the pandemic, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario estimated the province was about 22,000 registered nurses short of reaching Canada’s per-capita average.

“It really gives me hope for the future of the profession,” said Janet McCabe, associate dean of nursing at Oshawa’s Ontario Tech University, where applications hit a new five-year high this fall, a 54 per cent increase compared to 2018.

Given recent shortages, hospitals and other placement settings don’t have the same capacity to accept students, she said. But without ample placements, those students don’t get the practice experience to move through the program and alleviate workforce pressures.

She said placements that typically take place in May were stretched over the entire summer last year due to high demand and limited spots.

The Council of Ontario Universities said total number of nursing seats for this academic year would only be available later in the fall.

Some recent changes have also shifted the landscape of nursing education in Ontario. Under a 2020 provincial government policy change, colleges can offer stand-alone bachelor of nursing degrees, independent of a university partner. Eight colleges have since opened a stand-alone program, Colleges Ontario said.

The policy change was supported by nursing groups who say it can reduce barriers to education for students who would otherwise have to split time between a college in their home community and an out-of-town university.