One-off bursaries and highly focused marketing are two ways in which courses are attracting students in the battle to stay viable. Harriet Swain reports
Top-up fee-fuelled debates about the developing higher education market usually focus on where students will bestow their custom: will variable fees send cash-strapped young customers to their local Asda University while the affluent travel to a pricier but more prestigious Waitrose University? But another key aspect of the market is often overlooked: what do they aim to buy once they get there?
Savvier subjects and departments are all too aware that this is something that could make or break them. The intrinsic fascination of pure maths or French philosophy is no longer enough without a sexy image, attractive to potential students and investors, to go with it.
David Roberts, chief executive of the specialist higher education market research and strategy company Heist, says marketing has shifted in the past ten years away from the central management of an institution to individual faculties. While in the early 1990s only a handful of university business schools promoted themselves, now more than 1,000 full-time marketing staff are based in faculties, conducting market research, setting up schools programmes and working on the names and images of individual courses.
"Institutions are getting more canny about reviewing new programmes, not just from the point of view of academic robustness but also about who they are going to attract," Roberts says.
He says this trend is likely to continue. While few believe that, in the short term at least, the new fees regime will lead to courses being priced differently, it is likely to add to the pressure. Vice-chancellors have already been looking closely at subjects that struggle to attract students and, in extreme cases, are "restructuring" them out of existence.
Especially at risk in the new transparent funding system are subjects that are expensive to run, such as modern languages and many of the sciences.
Ian Haines, chair of the UK deans of science committee and director of the Graduate School at London Metropolitan University, says he cannot understand how education ministers will be able to stop universities charging more for expensive degrees, particularly when many senates are dominated by professors keen to protect their own subjects. "I can't believe cheaper arts subjects will agree to subsidise science," he says.
Peter Cotgreave, director of Save British Science, also sees problems ahead. "Twenty years ago you didn't really need to worry which department was bringing money in," he says. "You can't do that any more.
Vice-chancellors are looking at the bottom line of each department and are finding many sums don't add up." The reason, he says, is that the practice of allocating cash to laboratory-based subjects at about twice the rate of non-laboratory-based subjects is just not enough. A more realistic rate would be between three and four times as much, although current proposals are for it to drop. As a result, it looks as though subjects such as chemistry are in greater deficit, and if cuts are to happen, that is where vice-chancellors will go first. "This is exacerbated by student numbers," Cotgreave says. "If they fall, then it is more serious than it would otherwise be."
The problem is that while there is an element of market logic (however controversial) in vice-chancellors' decisions, those of the students whose choices can transform the fortunes of a department are far less easy to predict. Over the years, numbers applying to study some subjects have fluctuated wildly for reasons that depend as much on television programmes, political support, the school curriculum or fashionable ethics as anything to do with the subjects themselves.
Take engineering, for example. John Dickens, director of the Learning and Teaching Support Network's engineering generic centre, says applications to study all engineering courses peaked in 1993 but dropped by 45 per cent between 1993 and 1999. Since then, numbers have not dropped as a whole - applications to study mechanical and aerospace engineering have risen - but as the student cohort has grown, and courses such as business studies and law have become increasingly popular, engineering's market share has dropped. However, in the past few years numbers of civil engineering applications have risen considerably - by 25 per cent this year alone.
Unravelling the causes behind this pattern is tricky, Dickens says, although he suggests good press about job prospects and recent television programmes about important figures such as Brunel may have had an impact.
Similarly, reasons behind the dip in the popularity of modern languages are complex. Mike Kelly, director of the LTSN modern languages centre, says they include the fact that the choice of subjects to study has increased, that modern languages are relatively difficult and learning them is cumulative, that they are often seen as an add-on rather than a discrete subject and that the rise of English as an international language means studying foreign languages can be seen as unnecessary.
Yet only three university cohorts ago, modern languages were booming.
Numbers of applications peaked between 1990 and 1996 amid the buzz surrounding the single European market - a time when now-flagging European studies also took off.
Kelly says that while strong modern languages departments are thriving, others are becoming unviable, meaning less accessibility and less diversity in the way languages are studied. Should modern languages' appeal be reversed, it would be prohibitively expensive to restart a course.
Therefore, as Haines says, "it is about survival. Everyone is fishing in the same pool and individual departments are hoping they are not the next ones to go".
The result has been a lot of innovative thinking, Kelly says. "Subjects are repackaging themselves and finding new ways of presenting the benefits of their particular subjects," he says. People are focusing on trying to "fine-tune the sorts of issues students of 11 to 19 are thinking about".
This means emphasising both the fun aspects of a subject and its employment prospects, although a future career seems to be only one element influencing choice - applications to study psychology continue to remain buoyant, although the jobs market is better in struggling engineering and modern languages.
Students also appear to be influenced by the "worthiness" of a course, wanting to do good in a less privileged part of the world, for example, or not wanting to study a subject that involves animal experiments. The important thing, Kelly says, is to "hit as many buttons as possible.
Everyone has different motivations".
An important motivation is cash. Matthew Almond, chemistry admissions tutor at Reading University, says that numbers of applications have gone up 60 per cent since the introduction of a bursary scheme giving one-off payments of up to £1,500 to students achieving good grades in A-level chemistry. He says the increase is not entirely attributable to money.
Reading has tried other things to make chemistry more attractive, such as revising courses to include more analytical chemistry and increasing links with schools, and the move has helped to improve the quality of applicants.
"We realised that chemistry departments were closing down and we had to make sure that Reading was among those still there," he says.
Surrey University has also found that money helps in this tougher world. It has offered bursaries in engineering for many years and is looking at what else it can do if top-up fees come in. This includes watching what university departments elsewhere do, since it is no good offering extras everyone else is offering, notes Bernard Weiss, head of the School of Electronics and Physical Science at Surrey.
The Institute of Physics recently announced that it would offer grants to physics students with low family incomes once top-up fees come in, but the Royal Society of Chemistry feels bursaries would be too expensive and instead is planning to launch a "Campaign for Chemistry" this summer, aimed at promoting the subject in schools.
This is where many departments and professional bodies are focusing, recognising that they need to grab prospective students well before they choose their A levels. Peter Main, director of education and science at the IoP, says that while the numbers studying physics at university have not changed much, the numbers studying it at A level dropped by 25 per cent between 1992 and 2003. He suggests this is because of the availability of more attractive-sounding and easier subjects, such as psychology.
Haines says that if he could have one wish it would be that other A-level subjects were made as difficult as sciences such as physics and chemistry. Cotgreave agrees that many young people choose not to study science because it is harder to get good results in a climate that stresses the importance of exam success. Scientists have also been poor at promoting themselves, he says, particularly in terms of how good career prospects are.
This is slowly changing, with some subjects beginning to employ outside consultants to advise them on marketing, either voluntarily or with the help of outside sponsorship. Although a UK university typically spends about 1.5 per cent of its turnover on marketing - compared with 2 per cent in the US, according to Roberts - this is becoming harder to quantify as marketing devolves down to faculties. He says that marketing of higher education is generally becoming more sophisticated.
But there are exceptions. Roberts recalls one university with a low number of applications to study Russian that decided to cash in on the overpopularity of law by setting up a joint degree in Russian and law. The number of applications for this new course? None.