Let’s break down the numbers

Studying how subjects have waxed and waned in popularity reveals some striking changes and some difficult questions

January 16, 2014

Ask the casual observer which degree disciplines are suffering and which are flourishing, and they might suggest the following: languages are in decline; there aren’t enough people doing science; and enrolments in subjects such as business and law have gone through the roof.

As headline trends these seem more or less accurate, to judge by an analysis of 15 years of student choices that we publish this week.

Look beyond the high-profile shifts, however, and a fascinating wider picture emerges.

The period since 1996-97 has been one of significant overall expansion in higher education, so enrolment has risen in the majority of subjects.

But our analysis asks how they have fared in terms of the proportion of the student body they represent – and where the growth of the “boom years” has come from.

The analysis demonstrates what a lure - and how vital to university finances - business and management has been in terms of the overseas market

The sheer scale of some disciplines is striking and, leaving aside courses with controlled numbers, the top two – business and management, and engineering – have retained their positions over the period in question.

But a closer look at the figures reveals significant differences between the two fields.

In 1996-97, business and management had 135,430 students, whereas engineering had 110,095, so the former was 23 per cent larger in terms of enrolments.

By 2011-12, however, the figures were 211,670 and 143,630, respectively, making business and management 47 per cent larger than engineering.

Our analysis also highlights the source of the growth in different fields – and the extent to which overseas students have contributed to expansion in some disciplines.

Take engineering and technology – an area in which industry players such as entrepreneur Sir James Dyson frequently voice concern about graduation rates.

At face value its growth over the past 15 years looks healthy, with 28,000 more students on engineering and technology courses in 2011-12 than in 1996-97.

But further investigation shows that of these additional students, 21,000 were from outside the UK.

The analysis also demonstrates what a lure – and how vital to university finances – business and management has been in terms of the overseas market (it’s no coincidence that this, along with law, is also the field that the private higher education sector has pursued with most gusto).

By highlighting the mix of graduates being produced, the analysis will no doubt raise questions about whether the balance is right.

This is particularly pressing as we prepare for the lifting of the cap on undergraduate numbers: will a majority of the 60,000 extra students expected to enter the system plump for business courses? And if they do, is that what the chancellor George Osborne and universities minister David Willetts had in mind?

There will also be questions about some of the more marginal subjects, and what they say about demand for, and supply of, places. It is surprising, for example, to learn that nearly four times as many students are studying complementary medicine as are taking Chinese.

If all roads do indeed lead to Beijing in this “Asian century”, is Chinese medicine, rather than language, really our best hope of a ticket to the party?


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