FUTURE generations of Scots will be gripped by a severe nursing crisis after figures showed the intake of students into the profession has been cut by almost one-fifth in two years, it has been claimed.

The warning came from MSPs who said Scotland will see a widening gap over the next decade as growing numbers of NHS staff retire while the numbers of nurses and midwives coming into the profession are cut.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) spoke of the need for "a clear sense of future supply and demand for the nursing workforce" following publication of its annual labour market review.

The student intake for nursing and midwifery was 3060 last year, falling to 2700 in the current year and 2430 next year at a time when more than one-third of nurses are over the age of 50.

The Scottish Government said there had been an increase in the number of qualified nurses graduating and that intake was regulated to meet future needs.

However, the review highlights what the RCN calls "a worrying reduction" in nursing student intake numbers of 10% last year on top of a 12% drop the year before.

It adds: "Overall, this represents a total reduction of more than 19% in two years, and means that the overall numbers of newly qualified nurses entering the workforce will fall as these reductions feed through into the numbers graduating in the next few years."

RCN Scottish director Theresa Fyffe said: "This reinforces what we have been saying over the last two years about the worrying decline in student intake numbers.

"While the review suggests an improvement by two percentage points in the number of students who leave their course before completion, this is very unlikely to offset the 19% reduction in intake numbers that we've already seen over the last two years.

"As the Government considers its plans for the student intake numbers for 2013-14, we urge them to work with the RCN and other unions to determine the appropriate number of students required to meet the future health and social care needs of the people of Scotland.

"We urge them to think carefully about future demand and not continue to cut numbers."

The Scottish Conservatives seized on a planned fall in bursary spending from £69m to £67m as an indicator of the fall in student numbers.

The party's health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: "We know the SNP has already cut the number of nurses severely, despite its health budget being protected.

"Now its actions could lead to a severe nursing crisis for future generations. We simply cannot ignore the fact that more than a third of our nurses will either retire, or at least be contemplating retirement, over the next decade.

"We are not training enough nurses or midwives to account for this gap. I appreciate when newly qualified nurses are finding it tough to find work it may be tempting to cut intake numbers.

"But with the workforce demographic as it is, it is a severely short-sighted approach. As it stands, within a decade we will have to hire in significant numbers of nurses from overseas to account for this deficit, and that is something the public will not find acceptable."

Labour's Jackie Baillie said: "We have lost one in five of our nurse training places in the past two years.

"Nursing and midwifery levels are at a seven-year low. We need to ensure that we have enough places to keep a good supply of nurses available in the years ahead. It's madness that as thousands of Scots sit idle without work, the SNP cut training places which could help get young people into training and into work."

Alison McInnes, of the LibDems, said: "If we aren't training enough nurses and midwives today, who is going to look after our ageing population in the years to come? The NHS cannot operate to the highest standards if it doesn't have the staff numbers to support it.

"The SNP Government cannot cover up the fact that it is training fewer nurses and midwives than previous devolved administrations. On top of that, it is putting the NHS under increasing strain by cutting over 2000 nurse jobs in the last few years.

"The Scottish Liberal Democrats are concerned about the impact this could have on patient safety and on the future of NHS provision in Scotland."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Since 2009 we have actually seen an increase in the number of qualified nurses graduating because more students than ever before are successfully completing their studies. The student intake is set every year to make sure we have the right number of nurses and midwives for the future."