In the third of our series on degrees we look at what students can expect from ancient and modern subjects
WHEN IT comes to studying human behaviour, women are queuing at university doors to understand what makes us tick, writes Julia Hinde.
The number of students applying to study psychology have almost trebled in the past decade. This year more than 70,000 applications were made to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Last year 8,921 students were admitted, more than three-quarters of whom were women.
Now taught at A level, psychology's popularity in the classroom is without doubt helping to feed university admissions. Ann Colley, head of psychology at Leicester University, said that the breakdown at school level of barriers between the sciences and the arts, with students now taking a mixture of A levels also helped.
"There has been more exposure in the media to what students think psychology is. There is a lot of popular psychology around in books and magazines," she said.
As for the male/female ratio, Professor Colley suggested that the links between psychology and the caring professions attracted women. "Psychology is a science applied to people, human behaviour and the mind. That seems to attract women."
Universities offer psychology in both science and social science faculties, some in fact offer it in both. The Higher Education Funding Council for England's new funding method for teaching puts psychology in bands B and D, acknowledging that some aspects of the degree are high cost and laboratory based.
But whether students choose psychology in a science or a social science faculty makes little difference to course content as most courses keep to a strict accreditation framework.
Tony Gale, professor of experimental psychology at Portsmouth University, and author of Which Psychology Degree, said: "The distinction has more to do with A-level requirements than course content."
The British Psychological Society (BPS) accredits university degrees in psychology. It demands that all courses it validates contain a substantial scientific laboratory element.
Though not all courses are validated, without "BPS applicability for graduate registration", obtained via an accredited course, students are unable to continue to professional training as psychologists.
The contents of approved psychology degrees are specified by the BPS and include areas of social psychology - the study of how people interact with one another; cognitive psychology - the study of cognition, perception, memory, language and vision; developmental psychology - the study of how people develop; and biological psychology - which considers how psychological phenomenon are implemented in a real biological system. They also contain research methodology and statistics units.
Dozens of universities are listed by UCAS as offering psychology courses, but of those only Oxford, Cambridge, York and St Andrews scored a 5-star for research in the research assessment exercise. University College London and the University College of North Wales, Bangor, which both scored 5, are also said to be top departments.
Though psychology in England has not yet been teaching quality assessed, Professor Gale said standards were likely to be high.
Psychology courses also provided students with a range of experience, he said - in scientific areas, as well as in statistics, essay writing and library research. And the nature of the subject led to a lot of tutorial and seminar work.
The skills acquired by psychology students may be of help in the job market, as relatively few graduates - about 10 per cent - continue into professional training as educational, clinical, and occupational psychologists. The vast remainder pit their wits against other graduates for jobs in related professions such as teaching, social work, management and personnel.
Leicester University's careers service says psychology students are as employable as those from other disciplines. Six months after graduation last year 4 per cent of Leicester's psychology graduates were jobless, the same as the average rate after six months among all the university's graduates.
* Of the 8,291 psychology students accepted by British universities in 1996, 7,634 were UK-based.
* Of these 5,812 were women and 1,822 men.
* In all 24,240 women were studying for a psychology degree last academic year - almost three times the number of men.
* In 1987 there were 33,5 applications for psychology. In 1997 there were 77,476 applications, but each student was only able to put down six choices as opposed to nine choices ten years ago. If this is taken into account applications have more than trebled.
Source: HESA and UCAS