Science boom fails to add up

October 27, 2006

Reanalysed figures show reported upturn in science student numbers was overoptimistic. Anthea Lipsett reports.

The long-term recovery in undergraduate science has been overstated, the Royal Society warned this week.

The society reanalysed Higher Education Statistics Agency data that had shown large increases in the number of students studying first degrees in maths and biology up to 2004-05.

But the Royal Society analysis, published this week, reveals that the Hesa rises were more apparent than real.

The rises in the number of maths and biology graduates are the result of changes to the way students on combined subject and teacher-training courses are attributed to subjects, it says.

The Hesa figures, which are published annually, showedthat the number of maths graduates rose by more than 35 per cent between 1995-96 and 2004-05.

The reworked data showed that the actual rise was 7.4 per cent. Likewise, the increase in the number of biology graduates was 1.7 per cent rather than the 12.8 per cent figure given by Hesa.

The discrepancies are explained by the way Hesa classified students on dual honours and initial teacher training courses after 2002-03.

Before 2002-03, students taking a split degree course were allocated to either a single subject area or a "combined" subject category.

Since then, students have been shared between the individual subjects comprising a joint honours programme, which has boosted the numbers in these subjects.

The Royal Society report points out that the popularity of subjects such as sports science, forensic science and psychology has masked the stagnation or fall in the number of students taking stand-alone science degrees.

Hesa recorded a marked growth in graduates from subjects broadly categorised as "the biological sciences".

But the RS analysis shows that in 2004-05 biology students accounted for 17 per cent of this grouping. This was down from 31 per cent in 1994-95.

Psychology graduates represent 47 per cent of students in the biological sciences subject category, up from 33 per cent in 1994-95.

Sports science graduates represent 19 per cent, up from less than 10 per cent.

But there was good news overall for the sciences in that an increasing proportion of all first degrees have been awarded in the sciences - up from 31 per cent in 1994-95 to 37 per cent in 2004-05, according to the RS.

Judith Howard, chair of the society's higher education working group, said:

"Policymakers and others involved in making decisions about science, technology and mathematics subjects in higher education must be clear about what data they are being informed by.

"As our report shows, trends in students taking up science, technology and maths at undergraduate level are complicated."

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