Applications to nursing courses have dropped by a third in the two years since bursaries for students were axed, figures show.
The number of people in England applying to begin training fell from 51,840 in 2016 to 35,260 this year, according to Ucas, representing a decline of almost 32%.
There are almost 5,000 fewer applications than last year, when 40,060 were received.
It comes a week after NHS England launched the biggest recruitment drive in its history in a bid to attract children to the nursing profession.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said 700 fewer nursing students began training in September compared to the previous year, and it expects the figure to fall again this year.
Janet Davies (pictured), chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: "Failing to recruit more nurses puts patients at risk, and with 40,000 nurse vacancies in England alone, we cannot sit back and watch applications fall year on year.
"It is clear now that removing the bursary has been a disaster.
"It is time ministers looked again at this policy, before patients suffer the consequences."
She added: "We urgently need financial incentives to attract more students into the profession, and nursing students must be encouraged and supported.
"Our health and social care system is crying out for more nurses and recruitment should be the number one priority for the new Health Secretary."
Bursaries for student nurses and midwives in England were axed in 2016 and replaced with loans from August 2017.
The Ucas data takes into account all applications received by June 30, the final deadline for applying to up five universities or colleges simultaneously.
In total there were 48,170 applications for nursing courses compared to 53,010 in 2017, a drop of 9%, the figures show.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: "The NHS runs on the dedication and commitment of our wonderful nurses, who work tirelessly to provide the highest quality of care for their patients.
"There are currently 52,000 nurses in training to work in our NHS, with more to come thanks to our historic 25% increase in training places which will ensure we have the nurses we need for the future."
Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) RCN.