What is the largest undergraduate course in Britain?

The name and location of the largest course (outside of the OU) will surprise and shock you.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

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But I’m going to teach you all about how aggregation works in Unistats first.

This is important because – as the use of the word “course” will have suggested – I’m using unistats data here as our only public route into course level data.

I say route into, rather than “collection of” course data because much of the data isn’t actually at course level. There’s no direct information on course size (even though it does feel like the kind of thing the three students that used Discover Uni would want to know). The various things that do appear have a “population” value, referring to the size of the pool of students used to generate the statistics – i’ve used continuation data as that’s as near to the gold standard (HESA Student) as we are going to get at a course level.

For smaller courses unistats aggregates together data from a number of courses – either using multiple years of data or multiple courses within a subject area at one of three HECoS CAH levels. Whereas this is a pain in the backside for bringing together course level data, this practice actually works as a useful filter for answering this specific question.

So anything using any form of aggregation can safely be discarded… these will be small courses even though the population used in aggregations will look bigger. One simple plot later and I have my answer…

The largest undergraduate course in the UK, outside the Open University, is…

BSc (Hons) Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge

[Full screen]

What???

Yup. Classic bums-on-seats pile ’em high stuff from (checks notes) the second oldest university in the UK. It need hardly be added that the chances that all 570ish students pile into the same lecture theatre are slim to none, and we need to remember that the collegiate nature of Cambridge provision will make for a much less massive feeling course. After all, Natural Sciences at Cambridge is a single award that encompasses a range of subjects that would constitute two entire faculties elsewhere.

Elsewhere on the chart you’ll note some duplicates for courses with differing start dates. But overall, using the available data this is the most robust way to answer the question. Even if the answer is a surprise.

Further reading: What is a course?

One response to “What is the largest undergraduate course in Britain?

  1. I thought that University of Cambridge didn’t have “courses”?

    Aren’t they still called ‘Triposes’ instead, and are just generic award titles for a range of what would be labelled multiple “courses” everywhere else? That’s what the link says anyway …

    Makes comparison with “courses” in other places a bit dubious in my book …

    I once studied on and later worked in the Registry on the “Modular Course” at Oxford Polytechnic. It had over 6,000 enrolments across 40+ “fields” of study in the 1980s, and was probably easily the biggest and most complex degree “course” (outside the Open University) ever assembled in the UK.

    You can read about it here: https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Managing_the_Modular_Course/OQuTzgEACAAJ?hl=en.

    I had to work out how to return its students in the then FESR statistical return (the precursor to HESA in the former polys). It showed as a single course, but some combinations of subjects had only one student lol (‘Cartography and Catering Management’ was one, IIRC – always wondered what became of such graduates…). I remember someone, seemingly in a position of authority in an institution, telling us in all seriousness at the Conference of University Administrators in Nottingham in the mid-1980s that a course with over 300 students was “impossible” (my colleagues and I spent the rest of the session living up to the term “ROFLAO”). However a former VC from a decade ago whom I mentioned I had been a student on the course told me of the tragedy: “Oh, we got rid of all that rubbish years ago”. Nice to know that course innovation was respected …

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