Demand for STEM subjects holds up in wake of fees hike

But Hefce sounds alarm over the slump in foreign language students

August 21, 2014

Source: Alamy

Resilient: STEM undergraduate acceptances are up 8 per cent and maths overtook English as the most popular A-level choice

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects appear to have emerged relatively well from the tripling of maximum tuition fees in 2012-13, a major study of student numbers has concluded, suggesting that the government has had some success in protecting the disciplines during a period of radical change.

But the decline of modern foreign languages appears to have continued unabated, with the Higher Education Funding Council for England warning that numbers in 2013-14 could be at their lowest level for a decade.

Before the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees in 2012-13, it was warned that the remaining government grant to cover the expense of teaching “high-cost subjects” such as science and engineering might not be enough to dissuade universities from switching to cheaper and potentially more profitable humanities subjects.

But a Hefce study, Data About Demand and Supply in Higher Education Subjects, has found that undergraduate numbers in STEM subjects have remained “strong”, and that last year the disciplines saw record levels of Ucas acceptances.

Full-time undergraduate entrants in STEM subjects fell by 8 per cent in the two years to 2012-13, less of a decline than was witnessed in arts, humanities and social sciences (down 10 per cent) or modern foreign languages (down 21 per cent).

An analysis of Ucas data by Hefce shows promising signs for 2013-14 as well: STEM acceptances are up 8 per cent, a greater increase than for arts, humanities and social sciences (7 per cent). Acceptances for modern foreign languages continued to fall, down 7 per cent in 2013-14.

Malcolm Tight, a professor at the department of educational research at Lancaster University, said that the relative success of STEM subjects was to be “expected” given government funding support for the disciplines. “The rhetoric from government is that STEM is the most important area of study,” he said.

Whereas high-cost subjects still receive teaching grants, “other subjects have to survive on their popularity”.

He added that the greater burden of debt carried by undergraduates could be pushing them towards subjects that were more likely to lead to higher paying jobs.

STEM subjects were the only fields where the number of PhD and MPhil entrants increased in 2012-13. Overall, entrants fell by 1.5 per cent, although this was caused by a significant fall in those starting the courses part time.

Like STEM subjects, modern foreign languages are designated as “strategically important and vulnerable” by Hefce. But despite a £7.3 million programme to encourage more students into the area, the discipline’s decline appears to be continuing unabated.

According to Nigel Vincent, vice-president (research and higher education policy) at the British Academy, this is largely down to the decision by the last Labour government to scrap the requirement for pupils to study a foreign language at GCSE. He also blamed the “larger world context where people think ‘why bother?’ as the rest of the world speaks English” – a misguided view, he added, because businesses in the UK were “crying out” for people who could engage with markets in France and Germany.

There is a glimmer of hope for modern foreign language numbers in A-level results released last week. The number of students taking AS levels in French and German grew this year, having fallen in 2013.

Jocelyn Wyburd, chair of the University Council of Modern Languages, said that she hoped these data showed that a “corner may have been turned”.

“It is possible that the upturn we saw last year in GCSE language entries may have translated into greater take-up [at A level],” she said. She added that the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, a non-compulsory performance measure in schools that requires students to take a language at GCSE level, was one of the reasons behind the upturn.

In last week’s A-level results, STEM subjects made further gains. Maths overtook English as the most popular choice, and chemistry overtook history.

Trends: ups and downs

Percentage change in Ucas acceptances, 2011-12 to 2013-14 
Modern foreign languages-18
Computer sciences2
Engineering and technology2


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Reader's comments (1)

Correction: you quote me, but I am Chair of the University Council of Modern Languages ( My 'day job' is as Director of the Language Centre at the University of Cambridge. I was formerly at Manchester (in the position you attribute to me), but left to join Cambridge in 2011. Thanks