The number of students entering into nursing and midwifery courses will be reduced, the Scottish health secretary has announced.

Places available on these courses are being cut from 3,060 this year to 2,700 next year, because workforce projections show it would be “appropriate”, Nicola Sturgeon said.

Dropping student intake for the 2011-12 academic year will also save £5m, but this cash will be reinvested to support student and newly qualified nurses and midwives.

Ms Sturgeon said: “Having looked at NHS boards’ workforce projections for this year that already reflect changing patterns of care and service delivery, I believe that a reduction in intake for the 2011 academic year is appropriate.”

She added: “Setting the intake involves, every year, a sensitive balancing act between ensuring the right number of nurses and midwives for the future on the one hand and avoiding oversupply and graduate unemployment on the other.

“The reduction that I am confirming today strikes that balance.”

The health secretary said the cut in student numbers was “the first such reduction in Scotland for a number of years”.

She also stated it was “broadly in line with reductions planned for next year in other parts of the UK, where there have also been reductions on an annual basis over the past few years”.

Investment in improving the standard of courses and providing additional support for the one-year guarantee scheme, which guarantees newly qualified nurses and midwives work once they finish their studies, will come from the £5m saved from the cut.

The health secretary insisted: “It is also important to be clear that this is not about saving money. Every penny of the £5m released will be reinvested in measures to support student and newly-qualified nurses and midwives.

“In particular, it will help us support the one-year guarantee scheme that guarantees newly qualified nurses and midwives employment when they graduate.”

She continued: “I believe this is a reasonable and responsible course of action that will ensure the needs of the NHS for nurses and midwives in future can be met.”

However, Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie accused the health secretary of “getting her priorities badly wrong”.

Ms Baillie said: “Staff are doing a brilliant job in very difficult circumstances, but the service is already having to cope with 1,500 fewer nurses whose jobs are being cut to save money.

“We only have to look at the pressures and strains on the NHS this winter to see the impact of the SNP’s budget cuts.

“It is deeply worrying that they now intend to make the problem worse by cutting the number of places for student nurses as well. They are storing up problems for the future.”

Meanwhile, Ellen Hudson, associate director of the Royal College of Nursing Scotland, said she understood the 12% cut in numbers and agreed to this “in principle”, stating: “We are realistic and know that savings have to be made.”

However, she added: “We’re determined that government and health boards understand that they cannot continue to cut the numbers of nurses being trained, year on year.

“Given the changing health needs of the Scottish population, with many of us living longer, the increasing demands from mental health services and the number of nurses retiring in the next five to seven years, we need to make sure that we’re training enough nurses for the future.”