While 37,000 nurses were registered 1983 and 14,000 in 1995/96, official statistics reveal that next year just 9,000 nurses will qualify - the lowest number ever, the College believes.
On the eve of the RCN's annual conference in Bourne mouth, Christine Hancock, the union's general secretary, accused the Government of having its "head in the sand" over the threat facing the NHS.
Ms Hancock said there was no shortage of people who wanted to be nurses, it was simply that the the Government had cut the number of places.
Ministers had encouraged recruitment to be devolved to each NHS trust and as a consequence there was no co-ordination. Fewer trainees had been taken as part of the Project 2000 training programme in order to reduce "wastage."
Managers had failed to appreciate the "savagery" of the cuts, believing quicker throughput of patients would mean a lower demand for nurses.
Ms Hancock told a pre-conference briefing that the system in fact required more staff for the intensive nursing necessary and more nurses in the community for people who had been discharged early.
Ms Hancock said the trusts were now forced to scour Finland, Holland, Germany, Sweden and Australia for staff. A trust at Colchester was paying for nurses to come to Britain.
Delegates to the conference will have an opportunity to protest over the shortages today when John Bowis, a health minister, faces a question and answer session.
Ms Hancock said: "The Government has to understand what such a drastic fall in the number of registered nurses will mean for patient care in the NHS and the independent sector. The Government cannot have it both ways. On the one hand it refuses to collect national statistics on the nursing workforce but on the other it dismisses clear evidence from the RCN of nursing shortages as merely anecdotal."
In the absence of Government figures, the RCN is to set up its own model for predicting demand for nurses. Delegates are expected to back a resolution tomorrow calling for a national body to research and advise ministers and managers on workforce planning for all health care professions.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said ministers did not "recognise" the figures produced by the College. "All the evidence we have is that the match between supply and demand for nurses is better than it has ever been."Reuse content