What are the most popular degree courses?

By Professor Patrick McGhee
Assistant vice-chancellor, University of Bolton

  • Published
DegreeImage source, Thinkstock

With the deadline for university applicants to indicate their final course preferences looming, it is interesting to review how the patterns of degree choice have changed over the last decade or so.

According to UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), more than 500,000 applicants successfully secured places in UK universities and colleges in 2014, up nearly 3.4% on the previous year with the overall acceptance ratio steady at around 73%.

This represents a significant increase over the last decade.

In 2006, some 506,305 applicants applied for a university place whereas in 2014, that number had increased to nearly 700,000.

Overall, applications have risen by around 20% with around 2.4 million applications in 2007 and 2.8 million applications in 2014 (each person can make five applications).

But which courses are students applying for and how have patterns of applications to different subjects changed over the years?

And what, if anything, do such patterns tell us about the way young people and others view what they want from a university degree? Are patterns in the UK similar to elsewhere?

Nursing: 238,000 applications

Psychology: 106,000

Law: 103,000

Design studies: 97,000

Pre-clinical medicine: 85,000

Computer Science: 77,000

Management: 71,000

Sport and exercise: 67,000

Business: 66,000

Social Work: 64,000

In terms of changes since 2007, the largest growth has been observed in nursing, rising from 58,435 in 2007 to 103,550 applications in 2008, when the admissions system was centralised and unified, to 237,990 in 2014.

This increase in nursing reflects increases in the commissioning of nurses for the NHS through workforce planning.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Sigmund Freud: Psychology remains a popular choice

However, this area remains a hotly disputed political issue with manifesto commitments being made on increasing the number of trained nurses entering the NHS and reviewing the way places are made available.

Over the period, both chemistry and physics have grown by 50% to around 30,000 each.

Starting from a much lower base, chemical, process and energy engineering has risen 135% from 8,450 in 2007 to 19,830 in 2014.

Both mechanical and general engineering have risen by around 80% over the last decade.

By contrast, modern languages and associated studies have fallen by 24% to around 26,000.

This, in part, reflects a shift away from full degrees to short courses in the area.

Impact of fees

Many subjects suffered a downturn in 2012 when fees of £9,000 were introduced.

Some subjects have bounced back from that dip better than others, though UCAS indicates that current demand levels are slightly lower than they would have been without the fee hike.

In the humanities there were fears of a gradual structural decline as students became more vocationally orientated in their preferences.

Law: 92,000 applications

Psychology: 80,000

Pre-clinical Medicine: 70,000

Design: 70,000

Management: 62,000

Social work: 60,000

Nursing: 58,000

Business: 55,000

English: 54,000

Computer Science: 54,000

English, for example, lost around 10% of its applications in 2012 and has not been able to fully recover the lost ground since.

By contrast history, which was enjoying its highest ever level of popularity prior to the introduction of fees, only suffered a 4% fall, but has recovered quickly to rise 4% higher than the pre-fees level.

This might be taken to imply that while there is a significant core level of interest in the humanities, driven in part by A-level familiarity, some of the applicant constituencies who might otherwise have chosen humanities remain deterred by fees.

Gender differences

While the overall patterns of gender have tended to follow the general ebb and flow of application profiles over the last decade, the headline figures occasionally mask interesting trends.

In civil engineering, for example, although the total number of applications has remained steady at just over 20,000 for the last decade, this hides a 25% increase in applications by females and an 8% fall in applications by males.

Image caption,
Silent Witness may have driven a rise in applications for forensic science

In nutrition, the 10% increase is attributable almost entirely to the rise in applications from males.

While computing science has grown 44% since 2007 to 77,000, this reflects an increase in both male (43%) and female (36%) applications.

What are the factors affecting the popularity of subjects? Clearly, a wide range of influences affect subject choice including the level of supply.

Some areas such as medicine, dentistry and nursing have limited places and competition is fierce, with around 10 applications for every place, and this ratio has generally remained steady since 2007.

It is probable that one other driver of choice is the availability of A-level courses in the same topic.

The continued popularity of psychology at degree level, for example, can, in part, be attributed to the growth of psychology A-levels.

The effect of television in giving visibility to new types of careers is also often highlighted as a factor.

The popularity of TV series Silent Witness and Cracker and the film Silence of the Lambs, has been cited as boosting the number of courses and applications for forensic science in the 1990s and subsequently - even if the dramas in fact depict pathologists, clinical psychologists and detectives.

The lure of high potential earnings associated with specific degrees has always been a driver of subject choice to some extent, but this has become more complex recently as long-term career patterns become more fragmented and most jobs not degree specific.

Overall it would appear that the £9,000 fees, the recession and changes in the job market generally have not made huge differences to the pattern of course choices.

However, it is not clear whether the choices students make are always the right choices.

Computer science is consistently in the top 10 for applications - but also has one of the highest dropout rates.

Lifetime earnings

In the US, lifetime earnings are seen as a key driver for degree choice, especially in the context of the fees and commercial loans.

Total student loan debt in the US has now passed $1tn, with student debt outweighing credit card debt for the first time in history.

Overall in 2010, US graduates left college owing an average of more than $26,000.

The patterns indicate some interesting differences against a backdrop of similarity in the popularity of subjects compared with the UK.

According to the US National Centre for Educational Statistics (NCES) of the 1,716,000 bachelor's degrees conferred in 2010-11, the most popular areas were business (365,000), social sciences and history (177,000), health professions and related programs (143,000), education (104,000), and psychology (101,000).

US data analysts, Media Factual, who host the CollegeFactual.com website, identify business as the most popular current degree programme followed by psychology, nursing, biology, teacher training, criminology, accounting, humanities, English and history.

According to NCES, business studies has been accounting for around 20% of all undergraduate degrees in the US since the mid-70s.

For comparison, the corresponding figure for business and related areas in the UK is around 10% and has been steady at that rate for nearly a decade.

Education-related degrees in the US have fallen from around 21% in 1970 to approximately 6% now.

However, the largest rises have been in the miscellaneous catch-all category of "other fields" which has risen steadily from 9% in 1970 to 25% in 2012.

This category includes, amongst others, courses related to health professions, law enforcement, and leisure and fitness studies.

Big earners

For those who are really driven by earnings potential then a recent analysis of the degrees taken by 50 billionaires globally found that engineering and economics had the highest ratings with 14 each with business and finance having 11.

The authors of the report note that among the 50 billionaires, three had degrees in philosophy.

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Philosophy: Not a common degree among the top 1% of earners

Looking ahead at future trends in the UK, UCAS has stated that the 2012 fees hike led to a temporary 5% decline in demand overall and that in the future, variation in fee levels could well affect application levels.

They further expect total applicants from UK/EU to rise by a modest 1% to 2% between 2016 and 2018.

Given that the 18-year-old UK population is on a downward trend, the number of A-level entrants are correspondingly declining, with much of the growth in demand coming largely from applicants with vocational qualifications such as BTECs.

It is possible that this will boost courses with an explicit vocational element which tap into this emerging pattern.

Whatever the changes to fees, university provision, student numbers and the debate over different ways of assessing the "value" of a degree, it is clear that underlying the general stability in degree choices in the UK and the US is a great deal of nuance and subtle variation which hints perhaps at the shape of bigger changes to come.

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.