There have been 43,700 UCAS undergraduate applications for nursing courses, a fall of 10% compared with last year.
It is estimated that the NHS in England is short of about 40,000 nurses.
Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: “The continued failure of ministers to get a grip on the nurse-training situation will jeopardise care for patients.
“The Government may have agreed to increase starting salaries for nurses but, in isolation, that will not be enough to bring in the tens of thousands more we need. More incentives are needed to make it as attractive as possible.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “Our priority is getting more nurses on our wards, which is why we increased the number of nurse training places available by 25%, allowing more people to study nursing than
“Any decrease in the number of applications must be seen in the context of this significant increase in the number of nursing places available – and places remain oversubscribed.”
Overall UCAS reported a fall of 11,000 in the number of people applying for higher education courses.
It said this was due to there being 18,000 fewer 18 year-olds in the UK and a decrease in applications for mature student places.
However applications from the EU were up 2% to 46,040, while those from other overseas countries reached a record high of 65,440.