THE first analysis of the subject choices made by more than 600,000 students over a 20-year period will show that science and engineering degrees are being forced to make do with academically less able recruits.
By merging two databases, one containing national data on entry to university and the other on exit, Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson of Brunel University have discovered that, because of a radical shift in patterns of A levels since 1975, "science and engineering degrees no longer have the pick of the student crop".
Their forthcoming report, Degrees of Choice, finds that the number of students choosing a mix of science and non-science A levels has increased eightfold while the number of university entrants with science and maths A levels remained virtually static.
"The high-fliers in the mixed group tend to opt for the non-sciences," the report says. "Engineering and to a lesser extent the physical sciences have been unable to sustain their share of the most able."
The data, from the old university sector only, is backed up by a questionnaire and interview survey of 5,000 current undergraduates across all disciplines.
The report, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, found that in 1985 four fifths of entrants to science-based subjects came from the science/maths A-level group. By 1993 this had fallen to 50 per cent.
The conclusion is that the shortfall is being made up of the less able "combination" students.