The growth of business studies may not simply be cause for celebration all round, as Lucy Hodges reports. Anyone who thinks Britain is still churning out too many arts graduates - people who can read Virgil but are stumped by the practicalities of life - should study the first figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency on which subjects students took in 1994 (see table).
These show that the area with the most students is business and administrative studies. If we are not yet a nation of entrepreneurs, we are at least making a stab at it. Twelve per cent of all full-time undergraduates are taking courses in business and administrative studies, a total of 113,100 students.
"I am not all surprised," said David Miles, dean of Kingston University's business school, one of the biggest and most highly regarded in the new universities. "This has been one of the largest growing areas over the past 25 years."
The new figures cover the old universities and the former polytechnics for the first time. Business studies were always strong in the former polytechnics - far and away the subject area with the most students - and this year's statistics reflect that pattern. It should be noted that nine different subjects come under the HESA heading of business and administrative studies. They are business and management studies, operational research, financial management, accountancy, marketing and market research, industrial relations, catering management, land and property management and transport, and "other".
The figures show further that the second largest area of study for students is "combined honours" courses (11.9 per cent), a feature which shows undergraduates are possibly keeping their options open with a view to making up their minds later, or simply hedging their bets.
Next in size comes engineering and technology, an area occupied by 10.2 per cent of full-time first-degree students, of whom the vast majority (85 per cent) are men. That proportion is a bit higher than the 9 per cent figure the Engineering Council has for undergraduate acceptances in engineering and technology, but the discrepancy is probably explained by the fact that one is not comparing like with like. Acceptances are not the same as students studying the subject.
So, although the figures may look better than expected, they are not being taken as a cause for celebration, particularly as the latest preliminary figures from the University and Colleges Admissions System suggest a further small decline. According to the Engineering Council, the number of students in engineering and technology has been declining since 1986. One of the reasons, says Keith Foster, of the Engineering Council, is a falling off in the numbers taking A level mathematics and physics.
"At school age pupils are still not sure of the career they're going to follow," he says. Their decisions about which university department to enter are based largely on what they are studying at A level.
"They find a subject in a university that would be comfortable for them. If you have insufficient numbers taking maths and the physical sciences, then you're not likely to get so many going into engineering and technology."
If education degrees are excluded from the figures on full-time postgraduates, engineering and technology lead the league table. Why is this? It may reflect the relative ease with which engineering and technology postgraduates acquire funding. Or it may reflect demand, according to Bob Boucher, the new vice chancellor of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.
"One of the biggest factors in people's thinking has been the economy," he says. "People are deferring job choices, waiting for the economy to pick up. They say, 'let's do a higher degree'. The other cause is that students are becoming more aware that there are many graduates around with first degrees and to differentiate themselves they feel that a higher degree would help to get them a job."
The proportion of postgraduates taking a second degree in business and administrative studies is also high, spectacularly so when one looks at part-timers. The largest group of postgraduate part-timers, almost one-quarter of the total (23.2 per cent), is doing a degree, probably an MBA, in business and administrative studies. Most will be combining such study with a job.
How are these numbers to be explained? Chris Greenstead, who runs the University of Strathclyde's MBA programme, has little doubt. "There is a market there," he says.
Britain has seen a mushrooming in MBA programmes since the mid-1980s, from around 40 to 120 today. "That is a huge explosion in provision over eight years," he says. "Most of that has been in the part-time and distance learning market rather than the full-time market." Young professionals in their late twenties and upwards, working as accountants or engineers, are beginning to reach management positions, he explains. They need some further training. But they cannot afford to go full-time, so they go part-time.
Roger McCormick, of the Association of MBAs, attributes the big growth in MBAs during the 1980s to changing attitudes towards business, the fact that more cash was available for study (both private cash and employers' cash) and that managers needed to become more professional.
"There was a sense that we had to be more professional in business and that the management equivalent of sitting with Nelly had long since had its day," says McCormick. For George Bain, director of the London Business School, the reason for the relatively high numbers of people opting for second degrees in engineering and technology and business administration is quite simple. It reflects their desire to improve their job and earning prospects.
"I personally think that is a very good thing," he says. "If people are not going on to be academics - only relatively few want to do that - it makes good sense that they choose something that gives deliberate vocational focus to what they're going to do." Professor Bain, whose job is to train ambitious masters students, is not so happy about the high proportion of undergraduates choosing to focus on business studies. To which the Mandy Rice-Davies remark, "He would say that, wouldn't he?" is a tempting riposte.
The trend towards undergraduates choosing to study vocational subjects is worrying, he believes. "People make a big mistake if they decide not to read a subject which interests them on the grounds that it is not vocational," he says. "Employers are looking for good, intellectually well-rounded individuals. They would much rather take a good philosophy or English literature major than a second- or third-rate person doing business and management."
Such remarks do not endear Professor Bain to the men in charge of the universities' undergraduate business schools, who are convinced they are offering a superior product. "Business education in the United Kingdom is held in high esteem by the world," says Jonathan Slack, chief administrative officer of the Association of Business Schools.
They also believe they are attracting superior students. At Manchester Metropolitan's business school, students are expected to have 20 A-level points for entry. That means the equivalent of two Bs and a C. Standards are so high that prospective students are nowadays discouraged from applying, according to Andy Lock, dean of the business school. The new emphasis on vocationalism is putting the squeeze on traditional subjects such as mathematics.
Only 1.7 per cent of full-time undergraduates and postgraduates are studying mathematics. Fewer bright students are taking the subject to A level, says Margaret Brown, professor of mathematics education at King's College, London. "Probably many of the people who used to do maths are going into business studies, law and what have you," she says. "We certainly know that last year there were more places than there were students for maths."