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Last Updated: Friday, 20 October 2006, 23:13 GMT 00:13 UK
What are the degree chart hits?
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

Mike Baker
Welcome pop-pickers: stand by for the current Top 10 in the degree subject charts.

Still at number one we have law, offering a sound financial return on your student fees.

Close behind at number two is the up-and-coming design studies, offering creative excitement and vocational opportunities.

In third place is psychology, helped along by its growing popularity at A-level and, perhaps, the success of TV series like Cracker. It is the new sociology.

Putting in a solid mid-table performance are the solid, career-related, salary-boosting options: management studies, business studies and computer science.

In seventh place comes English studies, the sole non-vocational, traditional academic subject in the top 10.

Medicine, sports science and social work take the final three slots, all offering a clear post-graduation career path in the public or private sectors.

Higher fees

This top 10 is derived from the latest figures from the University and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) for acceptances onto degree courses this year, published this week.

Students today are much more conscious of their future employment and salary options

The headline figure, of course, was not subject choice but the 4.5% fall in the number of new undergraduates in England in the first year of the new, higher, variable fees.

Yet, while there has been much discussion of the effect of higher fees on overall demand, less has been said about the impact on students' choice of degree subject.

Already, since the introduction of tuition fees almost a decade ago, there have been clear signs of a move towards more vocational subjects.

A comparison between this year's most popular subjects and the favourites of 10 years ago proves the point.

Back in 1996, two other traditional, academic subjects were still in the top 10 alongside English.

These were history in seventh place and biology in ninth. A decade on and history has fallen to 13th and biology has slumped to 30th.

Future salaries

Comparisons like this cannot be exact as, over the decade, there have been changes to subject classifications and there are now more courses offering combinations of subjects and this muddies the waters.

However some general trends can be discerned. The most obvious is that students today are much more conscious of their future employment and salary options.

In short, many more feel they should be getting a financial return on what is now an expensive investment in getting a degree.

A recent study of the impact of fees on student attitudes, by Southampton University for the Higher Education Academy, found that universities expect "employability" to become the dominant factor determining undergraduates' decision about what to study.

graduation
Students are increasingly conscious of their options after university

It found evidence that parents might become a bigger factor in influencing subject choice since many of them are now supporting their children through university.

In particular, it was suggested that parents might be "less comfortable" supporting their children on arts and humanities programmes.

It found that students from poorer homes were more likely to be influenced by parents in terms of career paths, with a preference for "safe, secure, public sector careers in health, teaching and local government".

Certainly there have been some notable fallers in the popularity stakes. Sociology is well down on a decade ago, falling out of the top 10. Geography, French and German are also down.

By contrast, media studies - despite getting a hostile press - now recruits almost 3,000 more students than 10 years ago.

Despite the impression sometimes given that everyone is doing the subject, it is still only 27th in the popularity stakes.

However, the picture is not just a straightforward trend from academic to vocational choices. For a start, many subjects do not fit neatly into these categories.

Also many employers prefer rigorous academic disciplines such as English, history or foreign languages.

Finally, there is also evidence that students are acutely aware of the changing job prospects even within vocational subjects.

Computer science, for example, has dropped from third place to sixth, as recruitment to information technology has become less buoyant.

The Australian system

The Southampton University study also looked at the experience in Australia, where fees were introduced in the 1990s.

Unlike in England, the Australian system involves different fee bands, with arts and social studies in the cheapest price bracket, business and related subjects in the middle and law in the most expensive.

Despite expectations that this pricing policy would affect subject choices, the evidence suggests little correlation between price and course popularity. Instead, employment prospects seem to be the dominant factor.

So the Australian experience has been that education and health-related degrees have shown strong growth because they offer secure employment at reasonable, if unspectacular, salaries.

In short, students there have taken what financial advisers might call a risk-averse investment policy.

Another fear for universities is that higher fees will discourage students from choosing longer courses in subjects which traditionally take four or five years to complete.

For example, town planning requires four or more years and has seen a decline in numbers over the past decade.

In its new, broader classification - urban, rural and regional planning - it was down a further 8.5% this year.

Reflexologists and acupuncturists

Some other popularity changes are intriguing. Why, for example, is American studies down by a huge 25% this year? Is it because of anti-war feelings?

It seems odd, after all you do not have to think America is nice to want to study it, only to find it important and interesting.

And guess which subject has shown the biggest percentage increase in acceptances this year?

No, it is not social work, although that is up by 6%. Nor is it education, also up a healthy 7%. No, not even veterinary science, up 12.5%.

In fact, the biggest surge in popularity was registered by... complementary medicine.

So all those future graduates, suffering from the stress of big debts and difficult career choices, will in future be able to turn for some much-needed relief to a plentiful supply of aromatherapists, reflexologists and acupuncturists.

Top 10 in 2006

  1. Law
  2. Design Studies
  3. Psychology
  4. Management Studies
  5. Business Studies
  6. Computer Science
  7. English
  8. Medicine
  9. Sports Science
  10. Social Work
Top 10 in 1996
  1. Business Management
  2. Law
  3. Computer Science
  4. English
  5. Psychology
  6. Subjects related to Medicine-based sciences
  7. History
  8. Sociology
  9. Biology
  10. = PE / Medicine

Source: Ucas (does not include subjects taken in combinations)




SEE ALSO
Fewer people going to university
18 Oct 06 |  Education
Rise in student fees 'inevitable'
03 Oct 06 |  Education

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