Students are turning their backs on nursing degrees in the wake of a Government decision to axe NHS bursaries, official figures suggest.
Almost 10,000 fewer would-be nurses in England have applied for courses linked to the profession - nearly a quarter less than at the same point last year.
Nursing leaders said the figures confirmed their "worst fears" that a move to charge nursing students in England tuition fees and replace NHS bursaries with loans would lead to a drop in applications.
Ministers have previously said that replacing bursaries with loans will free up around £800 million a year, create extra nursing posts by 2020 and help students from all backgrounds take up the role.
Latest Ucas figures show that by January 15 - the main deadline to apply for university degrees starting this autumn - 33,810 people in England had applied for nursing-related courses, including midwifery, down 9,990 (23%) from 43,800 at the same point last year.
It is not yet known whether this drop will translate into fewer people starting nursing degrees.
Last year, around 28,890 people in total were actually recruited on to nursing-related courses, and the vast majority of these would have been UK students.
Most applicants for nursing courses are over 19, and English applicants from this age range fell this year, Ucas said.
In general, there was a drop in applications from older students, and this may have had an impact.
English 18-year-old nursing applicants fell by 10%, the figures show.
Janet Davies (pictured), chief executive and general secretary at the Royal College of Nursing, said: "We warned the Government the removal of student funding would see a sharp drop in nursing applications. These figures confirm our worst fears.
"The nursing workforce is in crisis and if fewer nurses graduate in 2020, it will exacerbate what is already an unsustainable situation.
"The outlook is bleak - fewer EU nurses are coming to work in the UK following the Brexit vote, and by 2020 nearly half the workforce will be eligible for retirement.
"With 24,000 nursing vacancies in the UK, the Government needs to take immediate action to encourage more applicants by reinstating student funding and investing in student education.
"The future of nursing, and the NHS, is in jeopardy."
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "Student contributions to university costs have changed on three previous occasions, and every time there has been an immediate dip in application rates followed by a steady rise.
"We are confident nursing courses will follow a similar trend and are certain we will have all the student nurses the NHS needs by September."
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