Students opt for technology and business over arts subjects

University lecture ethnic minorities
A pre-Covid 19 lecture
Photo: Shutterstock/Monkey Business

Medicine, computing and engineering continue to gain popularity for students, university entry figures released today have revealed.

New subject data from Ucas show that the numbers of students accepted on to computer science courses have risen from 20,420 in 2011 to 30,090 in 2020. Acceptances to engineering courses are up 21 percentage points from 25,995 in 2011 to 31,545 in 2020 – which Ucas says is driven by an increase in demand from UK 18 year olds.

The numbers of students being accepted for artificial intelligence (AI) courses have risen from 65 in 2011 to 355 in 2020.

Julia Adamson, director of education at BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT said: “A growing and diverse pipeline of talent in Computer Science and AI is essential for the UK’s economic recovery and its global competitiveness. The establishment of the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) is giving more young people a positive experience of computing at school and helping to create demand for the subject at degree level and beyond.

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“AI degrees will attract a wider range of students than ever as AI becomes essential to solving ethical challenges in every sector of the economy and society.”

Beyond Stem (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects nursing demand remained strong: despite the removal of NHS bursaries in 2017, demand for nursing places was now almost at the same level seen in 2011 (62,920 applicants made a nursing choice in 2020 compared to 63,275 in 2011) and admissions have grown by 57 percentage points, Ucas found, representing an additional 13,635 students.

Overall, acceptances to medicine courses are at the highest level on record, growing 37% since 2017, reflecting in part increased course capacity from new medical schools opening, allowing the intake of 12,000 extra medical students.

Law degree courses have also seen significant increases in admissions, with 29,105 acceptances in 2020 as opposed to 22,720 acceptances in 2011.

Business courses saw an increase to 75,515 in 2020 (from 61,100 in 2011) and psychology acceptances rose to 26,200 in 2020 from 16,685 in 2011.

Meanwhile, fewer than 7,000 students were accepted for English degrees last year, a decrease of a third in the past decade and history enrolments fell by a fifth to 12,870,

There were just 3,830 modern language acceptances in 2020, more than a third lower than in 2011.

Ucas, the university admissions service, said that its figures showed a significant shift towards technology-based degrees, law and business.

The government has promoted Stem subjects, an approach that seems to have paid off. Since 2011 enrolment in computer science degrees has increased from about 20,000 to 30,000, and engineering from 26,000 to more than 31,500.

Although  the popularity of practical and vocational degrees has been widely welcomed, many commentators were unhappy at the decline of arts subjects’ popularity.

There has never been a more crucial time for the UK to recognise the significant role of languages in effective diplomacy, security and international collaboration” – Vicky Gough, British Council

Sir Antony Beevor, the military historian, told The Times: “History is probably the best discipline available for anyone who wants to learn how to research, how to marshal their material and their thoughts, and how to present their arguments in the most effective way. If that is not a good preparation for diplomacy, politics, the civil service or even banking then I do not know what it is.”

And Clare Marchant, Ucas’ chief executive, warned: “The decline in acceptances to languages could exacerbate the languages skills gap in the wake of Brexit, therefore it is important that action is taken to promote the benefits of languages across the education sector.”

Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the British Council, called the data on the uptake of languages at higher education “disappointing”. She said: “There has never been a more crucial time for the UK to recognise the significant role of languages in effective diplomacy, security and international collaboration.”

The Ucas figures revealed that women made up 58% of new graduates, a proportion that was growing.

There was a slight fall – for the first time since 2011 – in the number of new black British students, however, from 42,155 in 2019 to 41,850 last year. There were 63,710 new Asian students last year, up from 60,455 in 2019, and the number of white British students rose from 319,265 to 336,860.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want our higher education to support the economy and skills our country needs and it is great to see the growing popularity in Stem subjects.

“We are committed to ensuring more pupils are studying languages, which is why the government introduced languages into the national curriculum for primary schools for the first time in 2014. We are also funding almost £5 million in a pilot programme which aims to increase the number of pupils studying languages at key stages 3 and 4 and provide support for teachers.”

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