Improved career opportunities for nurses could be behind the boom in the number of students applying for undergraduate nursing courses.

Figures from the University and Colleges Admission System reveal that there has been an 11.5 per cent increase in applications to nursing courses over the last year - a dramatic rise, when applications for other public sector professions like teaching have fallen by 12 per cent.

Current demand levels mean around 6,000 of the 27,000 applicants for nursing courses may miss out on a place - despite Labour's pledge to recruit 20,000 extra nurses by 2004.

Jonathan Shapiro, a fellow at Birmingham University's Health Services Management Centre, said the rise is due not only to the success of the government's campaign to attract more nurses into the NHS, but also the development of a more structured career ladder with clear opportunities for advancement.

He said: 'Nurses are being offered the chance to take on more responsibilities within the NHS and it is blurring traditional distinctions with the role of doctors. It is giving them higher status and many future nurses would see it as an attractive way to avoid going through the long haul of medical school.'

He added: 'I think the big question will be retention. I have said in the past that the NHS is one of the most exploitative employers in Britain and it will be interesting to see if the nurses coming through university stay within the profession.'

According to Royal College of Nursing education adviser Anne Eaton, government advertising campaigns are now having an effect. The organisation has dealt with hundreds of calls from students unable to get on nursing courses.

'The government publicity has obviously worked and it is getting more people interested in nursing as a profession. The problem is that there just are not the human resources there to support their learning or clinical training. That is what we need - nurses coming into the profession now.'