Job vacancies for graduates are expected to fall in 2009 for the first time in six years and the private sector, especially investment banking, the long-term favourite destination, will likely be hardest hit. As a result, the public sector is being seen as a safe haven for graduates.

And after 10 to 15 years of dwindling interest nursing seems set for a boom. University tutors are reporting surging numbers, with a particular point of interest being mental health nursing. For instance, applications for mental health courses at the University of Hertfordshire, compared with February last year, are up by more than 50 per cent.

Demand is clearly high for a profession that is undergoing rapid transformation. Psychiatric wards are no longer the main preoccupation for mental health workers. Increasingly, professionals are being sent out into the community to perform so-called early intervention, working with, say, teenagers experiencing their first psychotic episode.

"Workers are putting in a lot more contact, reaching out to people and often working in quite creative ways," says Alan Simpson, researcher and lecturer in mental health nursing at City University in London.

Mental health nurses can find themselves working in care for older people – an area that will grow as Britain's population ages, and illnesses, such as dementia, become a greater problem – and in special units for children, substance abusers and the homeless.

"The service has changed completely in the direction of the community," says Neville Scrivener, programme leader in mental health nursing at Oxford Brookes. "There are all sorts of community services developing so there are a lot of opportunities out there."

But it is not just the increasing diversity of the work that is attracting students. The field of mental health nursing is allowing for greater specialisation, with students focusing on, for instance, sex workers, pregnant women and sufferers of dementia.

There is also growing media interest in mental health – thanks in part to Terry Pratchett, the author who has early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and the broadcaster Stephen Fry, who has bipolar disorder. Tutors say this has raised awareness and boosted applications from school-leavers for a subject that traditionally attracts mature students with lots of life experience.

"People are more willing to talk about their problems," says Scrivener. "The stigma of having a mental health problem is not quite as great as it once was."

Mental health nursing, which is often incorporated on to BSc nursing courses, now has a number of dedicated degree and diploma qualifications. The dedicated courses at Oxford Brookes have, says Scrivener, a 100 per cent employment rate within two months of graduation. Many students, he says, have jobs lined up before they leave.

It's statistics like this that make pleasing reading for students in a difficult economic climate. Nursing students are also exempt from tuition fees, which are paid by the NHS. All diploma students are awarded a non-means-tested bursary amounting to around £6,000. Some degree students are able to tap means-tested bursaries.

There are so many different routes open to students – degree and postgraduate diploma, some of which are "accelerated" crash courses, and most of which offer dual-entry points – that it takes students of all ages. But other requirements remain.

"Ideally you want students who are not fixed in their ideas and are open to being challenged," says Simpson. "It's their personality that forms the basis of the interaction.

"In all branches of nursing you'd expect that, but mental health nursing is much less about treatment and using equipment. It's about being alongside people in times of mental distress."

Case notes

Stuart Jordan, 27, from east London is taking the postgraduate mental health nursing diploma at City University.

"We do blocks of work and placements and are encouraged to attach ourselves to clients. You might start with someone in the community, then accompany them on to an acute ward.

"The staff are great, as are the nurses and the patients and the ethical issues raised are very thought-provoking. You're working with people on the fringes of society and there's something very interesting and challenging about that." AS