New rules on bursaries for nursing students could drive away thousands of potential overseas applicants at a time when there is a serious shortage of nursing staff.
The Department of Health is set to abolish bursaries and tuition-fee support for nursing students from outside the European Union. New nursing students from within the European Union will continue to receive tuition-fee support, but will lose bursaries.
The changes are expected to take effect from November and could mean that universities that take large numbers of overseas students fail to meet targets.
Student nurses in England study for either a diploma or a degree. Under the rule changes overseas diploma students will lose a bursary worth about £5,000 a year and could end up paying fees of more than £15,000.
Eileen Martin, chair of the council of deans of nursing, said: "Our research indicates that of the 4,300 nursing diploma students starting courses this year at ten universities in London and the southeast, a third come from outside the EU."
She added: "There is no clear evidence as to the extent to which these students will start to work in the National Health Service, but the indications are that many will."
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: "The NHS workforce needs to reflect the community it serves and we would encourage universities to recruit more students locally."
The funding of overseas nursing students was raised by the Conservative MP for Chelmsford West Simon Burns at an April 7 public accounts committee meeting. He expressed concern that taxpayers' money was going on overseas students who were not planning to work in the NHS.