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ONTARIO: Amid shortage, nursing programs see record applications

Thousands of people applied for a spot at an Ontario nursing school this fall, as some programs report a record number of applicants
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TORONTO — 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, according to available data going back to 2013, Colleges Ontario said. 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 job availabilities.

"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.

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.

“We’re aware of what we’re getting ourselves into. And even though it’s a difficult position, a difficult job, I think, ultimately, it’s a worthy cause. And the outcome is worth all the stress in the end for me,” said Jibrin.

The Canadian Press requested five years worth of application data for fall enrolment from more than a dozen nursing programs across Ontario. Six of the nine programs that responded with complete data reported they received the highest number of applications this fall compared to the previous five years, including University of Toronto, University of Windsor and Humber College. Two colleges reported consistent numbers, while one universitynoted a pandemic bump in applicants, but a slight decrease from last year to this year.

"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.

A challenge for educators, McCabe said, is managing student expectations in the face of workforce shortages and burnout.

“We have to be very clear with students that we have an obligation to uphold safe, effective patient care against those… challenges that we face. And it’s not always easy, and it’s not for the faint of heart," she said.

With application numbers on the rise and a staffing shortage crisis at hospitals,the provincial government is looking to boost the number of nursing seats at colleges and universities. The Council of Ontario Universities said the province has committed to funding 786 new nursing spaces at universities this fall compared to 2020.

But adding seats is a long-termanswer to an urgent staffing question, educators say.

"We've known this crunch was coming. The pandemic just highlighted it," McCabe said.

Given the time it takes to graduate students, there is "going to be a couple years of pain" as the health-care system works through staffing shortages, said Sandy Filice, associate dean of nursing and personal support workers at Humber College.

A bump in nursing students at a time of workforce shortages can also create a "vicious cycle" for clinical placements, Filice said.

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.

"That is a challenge and adding more students to the system isn't going to solve that problem. It goes back to how we can support the workplaces to be able to take more students," she said, adding nursing preceptors are often poorly paid for the additional work of supervising students.

The Ministry of Colleges did not respond to repeated requests to provide the total enrolment numbers for Ontario nursing programs, and how recent policy changes or funding may have contributed to any reported increases.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said the province is funding education and has created spaces for 870 additional registered nurses and more than 1,000 practical nurses, but the ministry did not respond to repeated requests to explain the funding allocation.

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.

Jibrin had her bags packed Wednesday, ready to move into her rented studio apartment near Humber's Toronto campus.

She feels the pressure of being the fourth in the family to pursue a nursing career — after her mom, aunt and cousin — but also the support, she said.

"Whatever path I take, I can come to somebody for support," she said. "My journey doesn't have to look exactly the same."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 1, 2022.

Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press