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Tracing the Chris Whitty effect in the 2020 end of cycle admissions subject data

Sander Kristel breaks down the subject trends in this year's end of cycle data, finding a Covid boost for health subjects.
This article is more than 3 years old

Sander Kristel is Chief Operating Officer at UCAS

Today’s release of university and college level data shows the final application and acceptance figures for the 2020 cycle. We have updated our dashboard to illustrate subject trends by tariff group, with some fascinating findings.

Last autumn, when we were through the first peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, unaware of what was to come next, the government put investment in the skills employers value at the forefront of our post-Covid economic recovery. Last month, the government published the Skills for Jobs white paper, boosting the need to align the business’s skills needs with FE and training pathways.

As we look to recover from the economic recession brought on by the pandemic, we know that historically this has resulted in an increase in demand for HE, particularly from mature students. But is the demand for degree subjects keeping pace with skills the economy needs to pick itself back up post-pandemic and continue to thrive and prosper?

Health and social care

As we reported at our June deadline, the popularity of health and social care programmes spiked amid the Covid-19 pandemic. 2020 applicants, inspired by stories of NHS workers giving their all to keep us safe (aka the the Chris Whitty effect), flocked to get their applications in with an additional 8,695 applicants to nursing courses, compared to 2019 (+16 per cent).

However, this uplift isn’t isolated to 2020. Despite the removal of NHS bursaries in 2017, demand for nursing places is now almost at the same level seen in 2011 (62,920 applicants made a nursing choice this cycle in 2020 relative to 63,275 in 2011) and acceptances have grown by 57 per cent – an additional 13,635 students.

This increase is not solely driven by mature applicants: UK 18 year old accepted applicants onto nursing programmes increased by 73 per cent in 2020. The growth in nursing acceptances is seen across all tariff groups, and lower tariff providers are benefiting most with 72 per cent more acceptances for nursing courses than in 2011 – an additional 8,530 nurses.

Further growth in demand for nursing places is expected over the next few years, as these programmes remain attractive to mature students, and are garnering increased interest from 18 year olds.

Similarly, with the expansion of medical places in the last few years, acceptances to medicine courses are at the highest level on record, growing 37 per cent since 2017. Early indications for the 2021 cycle show there are no signs in this demand waning as the number of medicine applicants at the 15 October deadline was up 21 per cent on 2020 – good news for us all, as the need to build the NHS workforce of the future has never been more apparent.

STEM subjects

The popularity of STEM subjects has been ramping up over the past decade. Acceptances to computer science courses have risen by almost 50 per cent, from 20,420 acceptances in 2011 to 30,090 in 2020. This is predominantly driven by increases at higher tariff providers where acceptances have almost tripled. A further nugget found deep within the data is the arrival of a new kid on the block: acceptances to artificial intelligence (AI) degrees have grown by more than 400 per cent in the past decade – from just 65 acceptances in 2011 to 355 acceptances in 2020.

This growth will be music to the ears of employers according to research from the Industrial Strategy Council, which highlighted the adoption of automation as the biggest driver of a shift in skills and estimated that 39 per cent of the activities that people are paid to do in the UK today could be automated by 2030, with current technology creating demand in technology-related occupations such as software development.

However, although the ratio of UK male acceptances to UK female acceptances across STEM subjects has shrunk from 1.34 in to 1.06 over the last decade, there has been little progress made in closing the gap for computer science (6.2 in 2011, relative to 5.7 in 2020), perhaps related to the significant amount of growth in this subject overall.

Meanwhile, acceptances to engineering courses, buoyed by an increase from 25,995 in 2011 to 31,545 in 2020 (+21 per cent), demonstrated much greater progress in closing the gender divide – the gap has closed significantly from 8.2 in 2011 to 5.0 in 2020. This upward trajectory is reflected in the 2019 Workforce Statistics: over 50,000 women now hold professional engineering roles – nearly double the number in 2009.

And what of the Brian Cox effect of old? Credited with inspiring a new generation of young physicists in the early 2010s, resulting in the now infamous rise in applications to physics programmes. Professor Cox will undoubtedly welcome the ongoing positive trajectory – growth of four per cent in acceptances to physics courses in the 2020 cycle.

Languages and humanities

On the other hand, alarm bells are ringing in language departments across the country. Against a backdrop of a recent decline in school language provision, particularly in French and German, acceptances to modern language degree courses have decreased by 36 per cent, from 6,005 in 2011 to 3,830 in 2020.

Languages have the unwelcome accolade of being the only subject area (excluding combined subject JACS3 subgroups) to experience a decline in acceptances across all tariff groups, with a decrease of 27 per cent even at higher tariff providers where overall recruitment has grown by 44 per cent in the same timeframe. Additionally, ten fewer providers now offer language courses in the JACS3 subgroups R or T than a decade ago. This drop in demand is seen alongside a decrease in language A level entrants over the same period.

The 2019 CBI/Pearson Education and Skills survey report 2019 argues that for the government vision of Global Britain to be delivered, businesses need people who can communicate with customers and suppliers around the world. In this post-Brexit era, there’s no sign that businesses’ demand for employees with language skills will diminish. Respondents to the survey cited at least one foreign language as useful, the major European languages are most in demand: German (37 per cent), Spanish (35 per cent) and French (32 per cent), ahead of Arabic (25 per cent) and Mandarin (21 per cent).

Likewise, the “traditional” humanities subjects have decreased in popularity over the last decade. English studies courses have decreased by just over 30 per cent, from 10,020 acceptances in 2011 to 6,980 this cycle. Acceptances to history and philosophical studies courses declined by 15 per cent, from 15,060 in 2011 to 12,870 this cycle. However, unlike with modern languages, these courses are not shrinking at higher tariff providers, although growth does remain below the provider group trend.

Understanding the influences on student choice of subject is a complex undertaking. Far from being a rational, simplistic phenomenon, it takes time – often influenced by GCSE and then A level choices (or level two/three alternatives) made years previously at school – and can be further affected by a myriad of internal and external factors, many of which are unique to each individual applicant.

UCAS is preparing to pioneer a fresh approach to providing information and advice, underpinned by our Student Choice report, due for publication in spring 2021. That report will provide unparalleled insight into the process that precedes even the creation of a UCAS Hub account or attendance at an open day. It will trace the student journey from school to undergraduate study and beyond, and make recommendations as to how we can achieve greater harmony between student choice and the skills needed for today and tomorrow’s economy.

This article is published in association with UCAS. 

Subject considerations

David Kernohan writes: We’ve got data on subject of study by providers down to JACS group or CAH top level – I’ve plotted JACS to give us a longer timeline.

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Here you’ve got a time series (sortable by provider, or the whole sector) a provider tab and subject tab, allowing you both to compare subjects within providers and look at who is recruiting well in each subject (for instance to see that Lancaster recruited more students to Business and Administration courses than anyone else in 2020). You can select previous cycles (the default is 2020) and look at student domicile at a high level.

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