26 October 2006
The recent large increases in students studying first degrees in maths and biology are apparent rather than real according to a report published by the Royal Society the UK national academy of science today (Thursday 26 October 2006).
As part of the Society's report, A degree of concern? UK first degrees in science, technology and mathematics', the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) was commissioned to re-analyse its annual statistics on university graduates, offsetting inconsistencies in the data. This revealed that the rises in maths and biology graduates are actually the result of changes to the way students on combined subject and education courses are attributed to subjects.
While the annually published HESA figures indicate that the number of maths graduates rose by over 35 per cent between 1995/96 and 2004/05, the re-analysis shows that this rise is actually 7.4 per cent. Similarly the increase in the number of biology graduates is shown to be 1.7 per cent rather than 12.8 per cent.
The discrepancies occur because before 2002/03 students on a split degree course were either allocated to a single subject area or to a combined' subject category. From 2002/03 onwards students have been shared between the components of a split programme and, as a result, most of the students previously allocated to a combined' category are distributed across specific subject areas boosting these subjects.
Professor Judith Howard, who chairs the Royal Society Higher Education working group, said: "At a time when there are concerns over whether the education system can provide enough scientifically skilled people for the UK to be a globally competitive economy, it is extremely important that we have a sound picture, based on consistent data, of what is happening within our universities.
"Policy makers and others involved with making decisions about science, technology and mathematics subjects within higher education must be clear about what data they are being informed by. As our report shows trends in students taking up science, technology and maths at undergraduate level are complicated. There are numerous factors to take into account including the increasing number of students in higher education, year on year fluctuations in student numbers, changes in subject classifications and student categorisation, and the need to look at the trends in individual subjects. "
The report also highlights that the stagnation or falls in students taking first degrees in some of the traditional sciences have been masked by the popularity of subjects such as sports science, forensic science and psychology. While there has been a marked growth in graduates from subjects broadly categorised as the biological sciences' by HESA, in 2004/05 biology students only accounted for 17 per cent of this grouping. This is down from 31 per cent in 1994/95. In contrast, psychology graduates now represent 47 per cent of the subject category, up from 33 per cent in 1994/95 and sports science graduates19 per cent, up from under 10 per cent.
The number of students graduating from subjects categorised as the physical sciences' has dropped from 6.2 per cent to 4.4 per cent of all first degrees between 1994/5 and 2004/5. Within this category chemistry graduates have dropped from 29 per cent to 21 per cent and forensic & archaeological science graduates have increased from 2 per cent to 8 per cent.
The report notes that an increasing proportion of all first degrees are being awarded in the sciences up from 31 per cent in 1994/95 to 37 per cent in 2004/05. Much of this increase is attributable to the categories of computer science which is up from 3.7 per cent of all degrees in 1994/95 to 6.3 per cent in 2004/05 but now decreasing and subjects allied to medicine. These now represent 9.8 per cent of all graduates, up from 4.9 per cent.