Higher education trending: what do students want to study and why?

Last month the Irish Higher Education Authority (HEA) published an analysis of the last five years of student applications to the country’s universities and institutes of technology. This revealed some interesting trends. Unsurprisingly, student interest in construction-related courses (including architecture, surveying, civil engineering and planning) has, in the wake of the near-collapse of the Irish construction industry, waned significantly. Over the five-year period to 2013 first preference applications declined by 55.3 per cent. Given that some of the academic departments affected had, only six or so years ago, been dashing for growth during the boom, this has created major problems in some institutions that had seriously over-invested in this field.

No other subject area has suffered anything quite as dramatic over the period, but other big losers were business and law, together suffering a decline in applicants of nearly 13 per cent over the same period. Interestingly some of the main growth areas have been computing, engineering and science. The re-emergence of computing as a popular choice for students – applications have grown by over 50 per cent in five years – is remarkable, given that for much of the past decade students (and their parents, teachers and guidance counsellors) were concluding that this was an industry in decline and to be avoided. But the emergence of some key companies as economic powerhouses – Apple and Google spring to mind – changed all that.

What does all of this tell us? Mainly that today’s news about economic and industrial developments determines a good many student choices. However the rationale behind these choices is pretty questionable. By the time these students enter the labour market the developments that caused the economic trends have long passed, and some other events will create different effects. Students who entered universities to study civil engineering in 2006 when construction was booming entered the labour market four years or so later when it had imploded. People who wouldn’t touch computing in the same year because they were convinced that the dot.com collapse earlier in the decade had destroyed the industry will have noticed that when they were ready for their first jobs the IT sector was one of the few to be growing aggressively.

We also know from British studies that students are looking more closely at the economic career benefits of particular disciplines before choosing their courses. That of course is a doubtful practice if those benefits cannot be securely predicted over a period of time, or if such predictions are based on palpably wrong assumptions. So how should such choices be made? There is no perfect answer, but one that is as good as any other is to choose according to talent and interest. If you feel passionate or engaged or stimulated about something, then that’s very likely a good subject to study. But don’t assume that today’s newspaper headlines are of any relevance to the success of a particular career to be begun four or five years from now. They aren’t.

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25 Comments on “Higher education trending: what do students want to study and why?”

  1. V.H Says:

    Don’t you think it’s a bit rich blaming the students and their parents when the great and good along with all sorts of greedy scum kept up a degree of pressure and made it virtually a patriotic matter to join the ranks of the construction professions. And then you had FAS, an out of control QUANGO fifedom with its own space program. But even today we have the State managing retraining programs for yesterdays requirements. If they -the Civil Service retraining and employment sections- were asked to create a Congested District across the entire State for now and in perpetuity they couldn’t do a better job than what they’re doing right now.

  2. Ireland is littered with good singers and unemployed musicians. Talent is not necessarily as good as any other criteria for choosing a career that will maximise your potential for employment. Despite the fact that demand for various professions changes over time, it is possible to make certain predictions about what skills will be in demand in the future. Mathematical competence is always in short supply and there will be increasing demand for people who know how to apply technology if not develop it. We know there are going to be a lot more old people around so that might help identify a few professions. And remember, you’ll probably enjoy singing a lot more if you do it as a hobby.

  3. Niall Says:

    I notice from a previous post (30 April) that you spent two years in the workforce before entering university as a keen and enthusiastic student with a clear idea of what he wanted to do and the motivation to do it. Many school leavers enter university without such a clear idea and are not very motivated by their studies. Perhaps a break between seond and third levels would be beneficial – a transition year perhaps – or fuller integration of work with study would help students to decide.

  4. cormac Says:

    Re “If you feel passionate or engaged or stimulated about something, then that’s very likely a good subject to study”, I think many young people are passionate and interested in more than one subject. Thus, some consideration of career path can help them choose.
    Also, many students are simply looking at professions that are less volatile over time, e.g. science ves architecture.
    Finally, I’m not sure the increased interest in science is necessarily tied to career prospects – there is also a general increase in interest the subject due to the popularity of high-profile scientists such as Brian Cox and Hawking

  5. kevin denny Says:

    I had a piece in the Irish Independent making some of the same points. Essentially I think people over-react to current information (I actually suspect students’ parents have a big influence here). A degree is for life, not just for Christmas, and the fact that (say) there are lots of jobs in Google now or a lot of unemployed architects is almost irrelevant. I also agree that you should study what you are interested in- its murder otherwise. We have this terrible culture that students shouldn’t “waste” their CAO points.


  6. Anna Notaro Says:

    I have wondered sometimes what if the internet was around when I was an undergraduate student (Gosh that makes me sound so ancient!), would I have ended up studying modern languages where I did, or maybe I would have gone somewhere else, studying something entirely different (I considered psychology, while my parents would have liked me to study medicine). Casting my mind back then I recall several factors were up for consideration (practical, financial), in the end though what was paramount for me was listening to that inner voice, the one through which our passions make themselves heard, we ignore it at our peril! And passion, together with a good deal of talent, is exactly what is exposed for visitors to see at my own institution’s Degree Show right now http://www.dundee.ac.uk/djcad/degreeshow/

    But then what are the job prospects of an ‘artist’ today? Are they any better than the ones of singers and musicians, doomed to unemployment, as Brian reminds us above? What is the *point* of studying a subject as if for ‘its own sake’ – readers of this blog might be familiar with the ‘knowledge for its own sake’ arguments rehearsed here not too long ago. The point is that there is always a point, practice and theoretical knowledge are two sides of the same educational medal, what we are witnessing instead – to touch upon something not mentioned in today’s post – is the increasing impact on students’ choices of education policy, more precisely the sense is that the Westminster government sees every aspect of cultural life purely in terms of its economic utility, this has been recently emphasized by arts secretary Maria Miller’s decree that British arts and culture should be seen primarily in terms of its economic value, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/apr/24/british-culture-commodity-maria-miller
    Art, and its influence on society, amounts to so much more that this, in fact Art is *action* and everyone should have access to it, or to classics, philosophy, or any other university subject which, as a consequence of current education policy, is increasingly a luxury very few can afford. This is really where the crux of the matter lies when it comes to students’ choices, students need to know that they have the freedom to follow their passions, regardless of their family income, universities just need to make the experience a memorable one!

  7. cormac Says:

    On reflection Ferdinand, , it seems to me that the current upsurge of interest in science courses is somewhat in conflict with the general thrust of your post, and certainly in conflict with Kevin Denny’ s rather narrow view of students “over-reacting to current information”.
    It is a curious fact that qualifications in science do not map neatly onto well-defined careers in the way of law, medicine or architecture etc. While a good science degree is good preparation for many careers, it is notoriously difficult to specify which specific careers a physics graduate, say, is prepared for.
    It seems to me that the current upsurge of interest in science is driven by a realisation that, in turbulent times, an education in a broad discipline is probably a safer bet than a narrower one – not to mention wider issues such as the Brian Cox effect, the big bang tv program and the discovery of the higgs boson

  8. kevin denny Says:

    Its not clear what you mean Cormac. I think there is plenty of evidence that students do over-react. There is no good reason for the recent switch from architecture, civil engineering and related programs for someone qualifying in, say 2016 and working for decades thereafter. Ferdinand is spot on when he says it is very difficult to predict the benefits into the future in many cases.
    I could give more specific examples: degrees in banking took a hit the DAY after Lehman brothers went belly-up. Indeed over-reacting to news (due to what psychologists call availability bias) is a common trait not peculiar to students but most of us are not usually making life changing discussions at the time.

  9. Wendymr Says:

    This is where investment in good-quality labour market research – investment both by governments and by intending students – is essential. Self-assessment by intending students is also a good idea; it’s not sensible to decide to study law based on having established via research that the demand for lawyers is expected to remain strong over the next five years, without also considering whether you have an interest in the subject-matter and the kind of jobs law graduates move into – as well as an aptitude for remembering intricate details and making arguments based on logic and precedent.

    Of course labour market research and trend analysis is not and cannot be an exact science but, leaving aside economic shocks such as crashes and sudden booms, it is possible to make predictions based on a number of factors:

    – demographic and other trends: census results, for example, showing population movements and an ageing population, as well as a tendency to live longer;

    – scientific advances, such as developments in medical science which increase recovery rates after trauma and offer artificial replacement of body parts to a greater extent that in the past, and many more;

    – social trends, such as an increase in spending on entertainment, holidays and consumer goods;

    – changes in legislation and public policy, which sometimes increase demand in certain occupations, or raise the status of certain occupations

    Of course, what then has to be avoided is the ‘Top Ten Jobs of the Future’ kind of approach – but some decent research in the first place, plus effective use of the available information in career education in secondary schools, could make all the difference.

    (Though some education for parents might also not go amiss, so that when little Joey or Jenny comes home and says he or she wants to be a plumber they won’t freak out. And just as an aside: in my last year as an academic in the UK, I knew of a couple of people who resigned their academic positions – junior lecturer, contract researcher – and went into the skilled trades, and within a year were earning more and working fewer hours than in their former jobs).

  10. Dan Says:

    It doesn’t seem mysterious to me. For the last 5 years, the government and various “expert commentators” (often with vested interests) have been banging on that we need more scientists, computer studies graduates, etc, etc, innovation, industry, etc. In TV, radio, newspapers and the web, it has been constant. Parents read, career guidance counsellors read, students read…in 5 years time, expect the commentariat to be whining “We need more architects, engineers, etc…this is a crisis and is hindering the nation’s recovery”…

    It reminds me of the media frightening young people about the Leaving Cert, with their Education Supplements, advice columns, radio programmes, then the same outlets write about how unfair the Leaving Cert is, how it places worry and stress on young people….blah blah blah…

  11. cormacc Says:

    Kevin and Ferdinand:
    My point is about *science* courses. It seems to me that the specific case of the marked upsurge of interest in science is something of a counter-example to the argument that students and their parents are over-reacting to newspaper headlines.
    Certainly, some of the examples quoted match your argument, i.e. interest in civil engineering, architecture etc has plummeted. But, since degrees in *science* are not in fact linked to well-defined professions (in the way of accounting or engineering), the upsurge of interest in science may be evidence of a different trend, a trend towards more ‘safe’ general degrees in turbulent times, in preference to the highly specific courses of recent years (e.g. BSc in multimedia etc).
    Of course I may be wrong, there may well be another side to this ‘science’ counter-argument I keep making, but nobody has addressed it so far!

  12. Eduard Du Courseau Says:

    I tend to agree with Ferdinand here in that we should play to our strengths and not follow general trends, whims or take ‘sensible advice’ from anxious parents and careers guidance counsellors. What is now considered a ‘good degree’ or 2.1 and above is clearly more achievable to students who show interest, aptitude and passion for a particular discipline.

    All too often students drop out of courses which are too hard or uninteresting; many join the workforce without any degree and are generally at a significant disadvantage compared to their peers who have completed degrees in less market-friendly courses, many of which can be springboards to very rewarding careers in unrelated areas. There are plenty of examples of senior executives in the boardroom with primary degrees in classics, modern languages, history and music; and they are doubly lucky in that the enjoyment of engaging with the arts and humanities stays with them throughout their working lives.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      I would agree with this, especially on the last point about some degree subjects relevant in fields one would not immediately associate them with (the transferable skills argument), but here is also why together with all the factors mentioned so far: demographic, scientific advances, social trends, the role of the media, psychological tendencies towards ‘safer’ degrees in turbulent times, career advice, (the possibilities open by online learning are also bound to play a role when it comes to the ‘choice’ of subject!) all of which exercise a certain degree of influence on student’s choices, what remains key is that financial considerations should never be an hindrance, social justice and HE should make the best of bedfellows..

  13. Eddie Says:

    Very amusing to see a bunch of academics muttering to themselves. THE had a long discussion about this, before it switched to the new model of pay and post, and not surprisingly there too academics had no clue how the real world works. A student will take the course that he or she sees benefitting his/her future career. You underestimate students at your peril.

    “There are plenty of examples of senior executives in the boardroom with primary degrees in classics”. Very amusing indeed. I want to know who are these Greek and Latin scholars are in Apple and Microsoft board rooms quoting words of windom from Homer in board meetings.

    • Eddie Says:

      Should be “wisdom”.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        How ironic that of all the words in your comments you should misspell ‘wisdom’, while referring to classics! Lol

        Regarding careers for classicists in today’s world, you might find this enlightening:

        • Eddie Says:

          Misspell, after I corrected it, because there is no editing facility here? Your peddling of “wisdom” agenda” will have no takers from the student community. Your delusion has no limits, I guess. Expected reply from a self-serving academic. Not surprising at all.

          • Eddie Says:

            Oh, by the way, the wisdom is recognising a typo ( hitting a wrong key) from a misspell. I cannot expect this from a certain academic here!!

          • Anna Notaro Says:

            As usual, resorting to insult instead of engaging with argument, quite predictable by now!

          • Eddie Says:

            Engaging with an argument by pointing out a typo as a misspell with a put down remark, after the person concerned realising the typo and corrected it immediately without any one pointing it out? If this is how academics of this ilk engage with their classics students, no wonder more and more students do not want to have anything to do with them, finding this route not fit for their employment purpose, and vote with their feet to go to STEM courses.

  14. Just a thought experiment – no relation to reality at all, of course.

    Imagine a topic taught at university that, because of a major technological or societal change, was no longer of any use. Would the academics who taught that topic volunteer to stop teaching it? Would you expect arguments to emerge for keeping the topic in the curriculum? How long would that topic remain in the curriculum? Until the academics retired or would they continue to hire young academics who loved the topic and make it last even longer?

    Just wondering.

    • Charles Michaels Says:

      This is coming rather late, but still:@ Brian

      I think it’s already happening in the marketing departments of universities.Technological innovations like social media have literally transformed the concept of marketing into the much wider and vibrant field that it is today, leaving the old Academics with the arduous task of trying to “keep up with the trends”

      I think in such cases, the Academics would just have to redefine themselves, or walk.

      • Good example, Charles. As it happens I know of a marketing course that has very little digital marketing in the course (and was very slow to put it in) because none of the academics on the course knew much about it. The academics have not redefined themselves, nor walked.

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