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Tracking student demand for degree subjects

In the academic year 2012-13, HEFCE changed its focus on a defined list of strategically important and vulnerable subjects to a new policy approach applying to all subject areas. This change recognises that shifts in demand from students or employers, or decisions by institutions based on cost or strategy, might put at risk the continued availability of any subject. In monitoring the health of all subjects, HEFCE uses a mix of quantitative evidence (from public data) and qualitative evidence (from stakeholders).

At the end of July 2014, HEFCE published interactive quantitative evidence on the current and future supply of graduates and postgraduates in all subjects. As well as updating the data, this publication builds on the previous year’s by making the data more interactive. This is done through Tableau software, which enables a display of time series (2002-03 to 2012-13) across multiple subject areas with the option to select the level of detail, the student or study characteristic, or a comparison of two subject areas (see Figures 1 and 2).


Figure 1 Undergraduate entrants registered at English higher education institutions, 2002-03 to 2012-3

Source: Analysis of the Higher Education Statistics Agency standard registration population at English publicly funded higher education institutions 2002-03 to 2012-13. Note: ‘STEM’ = ‘science, technology, engineering and mathematics’.


Figure 2 Undergraduate entrants to science, technology, engineering and mathematics at English higher education institutions, 2002-03 to 2012-13

Source: Analysis of the Higher Education Statistics Agency standard registration population at English publicly funded higher education institutions 2002-03 to 2012-13.


Our purpose is:

·                to distinguish longer-term trends from short-term fluctuations in the numbers of students in different academic disciplines

·                to make the evidence available for wider discussion, which we consider will enrich understanding and lead to better decisions about and within higher education

·                to maintain the evidence base that informs policy interventions in response to identified risks.

Interventions should balance the wider government policy of student choice driving the undergraduate system with the priority the Government accords to economic growth and the UK’s competitiveness in its Industrial Strategy, with its emphasis on demand for graduates and researchers, particularly in science subjects.

Overall student numbers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects have held up over the longer term. Our interventions have included:

·                the National HE STEM programme, which addressed challenges facing the supply and diversity of STEM graduates in England and Wales from 2009 to 2012

·                continued funding for 2013-14 to help secure the provision of four very high-cost STEM subjects: chemistry, physics, chemical engineering and mineral, metallurgy and materials engineering.

In response to the Government’s announcement in February of £200 million in capital funding for STEM teaching in the academic year 2015-16, we have invited higher education institutions and further education colleges with more than 1,000 full-time equivalent UK or European Union student numbers to apply on a competitive basis for funding, which they must agree to match at a minimum rate of 1:1.

We are also providing funding through our Catalyst Fund for a number of projects that will make STEM courses more attractive. These include:

·                the University of Lincoln's project about new employer-engaged STEM provision in chemistry and mathematics

·                Northumbria University's Think Physics, aimed at increasing the study of physics and related disciplines by women and those from other under-represented groups through an innovative regional partnership

·                the University of Warwick's project, focused on the development of an innovative industry-funded undergraduate Applied Engineering Programme.

The decline in recruitment to modern foreign languages in 2012-13, and the UCAS data on applications and acceptances for 2013-14, are consistent with a longer-term decline. We have continued to support modern foreign languages, including investing in further demand-raising activity through Routes into Languages from 2013 to 2016, and providing a tuition fee supplement from 2014-15 for students engaging in a year of study or work abroad. We are also talking to universities about developing projects eligible for funding from our Catalyst Fund.

Important users of the data about demand and supply in higher education subjects with a keen interest in the health of disciplines include academic and professional bodies, such as the British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry. If such a body wished, for example, to use the data in presentations and reports to stimulate discussion and support recommendations about actions in response to the evidence, they might use the options to select subject areas, vary the detail of the subject groupings and select particular student or study characteristics. The Royal Academy of Engineering and the University Council of Modern Languages in particular have indicated that allowing subject-level data to be split by characteristics such as ethnicity and the Participation of Local Areas measure will enhance wider discussions of access and diversity issues in higher education.

In addition to the above analysis, we commissioned the National Centre for Universities and Business to investigate employers’ demand for graduate and postgraduate skills, including looking at data on the flow of graduates within the labour market. The report, ‘Career portfolios and the labour market for graduates and postgraduates in the UK’, was published in April 2014. This report examined the complexity of the labour market, specifically its fluidity and the unpredictable demand for skills, and recommended that employers and institutions 'collaborate more effectively in developing talented graduates.


Ruth Tucker is Higher Education Policy Adviser at HEFCE

This article was originally published by HEi-know on 18 August 2014