As clearing gets under way, THES reporters look at what students can expect from the most and least popular subjects
The most popular of all degree subjects, business studies, has seen explosive growth since it was launched as a stand-alone discipline in 1965 to a chorus of derision from the academic establishment.
Only 129 students joined the five business studies BA courses available for the first time in the 1965/66 academic year. But in 30 years the number of undergraduates in business studies and its associated subjects has risen to over 156,000. Students in business courses make up 13 per cent of the entire student population, according to the Association of Business Schools, and demand for courses outstrips supply by nearly two to one.
The reason for the phenomenon, said Chris Greensted, ABS chairman and dean of Strathclyde's graduate business school, is simple - employment. "The growth comes with pressure from both ends of the job market," he said. "With the growth in the student population, graduates find it a lot harder to get a job these days, so they want to be better prepared for work. And margins are being cut in industry, so employers have not got the resources to train people on-the-job, so they look for more instantly usable people."
Figures from the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals show that in 1993/94, 56 per cent of first-degree business graduates obtained permanent employment, compared with an average of 47 per cent for all subjects.
"If you go back 20-odd years," Professor Greensted said, "you could leave university with any degree and get a job. Students are now thinking much earlier in their studies of getting a job. Business studies students are into the touchy-feely stuff. They'll have better interpersonal skills and a better understanding of the world of work, even if it is largely theoretical. But a science graduate will be full of chemical equations and formulae."
The introduction of tuition fees next year could encourage even more growth, Professor Greensted said. "It will certainly be more and more difficult for history degrees, or philosophy degrees, to attract people when we have fees. There is no obvious employment for historians, so many would have to do additional, postgraduate study, and they're not going to want to do that if they are already in debt."
But the expansion of the discipline must not go unchecked, said Professor Greensted. Demand for courses has raised issues of quality. There are about 300 degrees with business or management in the title, the ABS points out, and "thousands and thousands" of courses. Some institutions, it is feared, are simply cashing in on demand, opening badly thought out programmes to attract students.
The ABS is developing a national core curriculum to check standards in the burgeoning market. At present, the Biznet 2000 degree standards scheme is to be voluntary and self-regulatory, but the ABS expects that it will eventually form the basis of a compulsory national core curriculum, in line with Sir Ron Dearing's recommendation for minimum threshold standards.
Mary Spence, dean of the business faculty at Greenwich University and an ABS director, is leading the project and believes that the proliferation of courses has threatened the reputation of the sector.
Of 1 institutions in the research assessment exercise, only 9 per cent (12) gained grade 5 or 5-star in business and management research, while 37 per cent (48) of the institutions were given a grade 1 or 2. Overall, the subject came 56th out of 69 subjects in the 1996 RAE. Some 2,322 academic staff were assessed and the weighted average was 4.234.
The teaching base of the subject fares slightly better. Of those examined in the teaching quality assessment, 22 departments have been awarded an excellent mark, 39 were given satisfactory and nine got highly satisfactory.
"There has been a huge proliferation at undergraduate level in the past ten years to meet demand," Professor Greensted said. "But the competitive entry standard for business studies degrees is higher than in many other subjects. There is very buoyant demand. When entry standards drop, then you have problems."
* There were 85,659 undergraduates in business and management studies in 1996-97.
* There were 156,143 undergraduates enrolled on business and business-related courses, including accountancy and marketing in 1995/96.
* There were 125,677 applicants for degree/diploma business and related studies programmes for October 1997 entry.
* Demand for undergraduate places outstrips supply by nearly two to one.
* There were 18,000 overseas students paying fees on undergraduate business and management courses in 1995/96 - nearly 17 per cent of the total undergraduate overseas population. Taking the British Council's estimate that each overseas student spends Pounds 10,424 a year on fees and living costs, overseas students on first-degree business courses generate an annual revenue of more than Pounds 187 million.
Source: UCAS and HESA