With the recent news surrounding the proposed rise in tuition fees in the UK, I thought I'd see how many more students we have these days. The claim is that with more than ever before going to university it's impractical for every student to be funded by the taxpayer, but how many more are there?
I've rifled through the Higher Education Statistics Agency for figures, and my first graph is of total students numbers since 1996/97:
A pretty clear trend, then. Although there are a couple of caveats. The main one is that I have plotted total undergraduates, which doesn't separate international students from UK ones, which obviously muddies the water a bit. The other is that my y-axis starts at 1 million, so the increase looks a little more dramatic than it is (although a 25% increase is still pretty big).
What I find most interesting about this graph, however, are the two places where the trend gets interrupted. They represent when key changes were made to how much a degree would cost - the first being when tuition fees were initially introduced, and the second when top-up fees (trebling the cost of most courses) came in. It doesn't seem that these two measures have had long-term impacts on the increasing number of students, but eyeballing it is obviously pretty dangerous, and since we don't have data prior to 1996 we can't really say much about earlier trends either.
So we know there are more students, but what are they studying? Again, I've looked at undergraduates only, and plotted the numbers of students studying various subjects from 2002/03 to 2008/09. There are subject-by-subject data, but to try and make it close to comprehensible I've used HESA's 19 subject 'areas'. For reference, I've listed which subjects each subject area includes at the bottom, as it can explain a lot of the relative popularity of each.
It's not a particularly good graph, I know (and you probably need to click on it to see it properly), but I just wanted an overview to see if anything leapt out. (Don't worry about some of the colours being quite similar - the legend is arranged to match up with the order the lines appear on the far right of the plot, so it should be just about decipherable.)
First of all, why only from 2002/03? The answer is because there seems to be a dramatic change in how degrees were classified in the datasets I found. Prior to 2002 around 100,000 students were categorised as doing a 'combined' subject, but this suddenly dropped to just 10,000. At the same time various other subjects saw massive jumps in numbers - clearly most of the combined subjects were now being counted amongst other categories, and so it's easiest to just look at the data from this point onwards.
What are the main trends? Most subjects seem to be gradually increasing, as we might expect, but there are some that stay roughly constant, and some that drop considerably. In particular, computer science is having a terrible time of it, with a huge drop over the last seven years.
A better way to look at these data, however, is to consider what proportion of undergraduates are studying which subjects, rather than their absolute numbers. This gives us a clearer picture of the changes in the makeup of our student population, and should highlight which subjects are just increasing in line with the overall surge in student numbers, and which are losing out or doing better still.
It might not look like too much has changed, but you can see plenty of subjects' lines aren't quite as steep as they were. One can now identify with slightly more confidence which subjects are getting more than their fair share of new students.
As you've probably noticed, this 'analysis' is pretty rough and not particularly scientific. The main warning I should probably provide is that you shouldn't read too much into the subject area headings. For instance, something like biological sciences seems to be getting a bigger share of the pie, but this doesn't mean biology is. From 2002/03 to 2008/09 biology increases from 17,390 undergraduates to 18,885, whereas sports science goes from 15,755 to 31,370.
A subject-by-subject analysis might be forthcoming, should I get bored enough over the festive period, but for now I must resist. All the data are available for free here, though. So if you're super keen you could poke around it yourself. You never know, you might be able to work out why statistics has dropped from 1,680 undergraduates to 1,325. It seems totally inexplicable to me...
Those subject areas in full...
Business & administrative studies: Broadly-based programmes within business & administrative studies; Business studies; Management studies; Finance; Accounting; Marketing; Human resource management; Office skills; Hospitality, leisure, tourism & transport; Others in business & administrative studies
Subjects allied to medicine: Broadly-based programmes within subjects allied to medicine; Anatomy, physiology & pathology; Pharmacology, toxicology & pharmacy; Complementary medicine; Nutrition; Ophthalmics; Aural & oral sciences; Nursing; Medical technology; Others in subjects allied to medicine
Creative arts & design: Broadly-based programmes within creative arts & design; Fine art; Design studies; Music; Drama; Dance; Cinematics & photography; Crafts; Imaginative writing; Others in creative arts & design
Social studies: Broadly-based programmes within social studies; Economics; Politics; Sociology; Social policy; Social work; Anthropology; Human & social geography; Others in social studies
Biological sciences: Broadly-based programmes within biological sciences; Biology; Botany; Zoology; Genetics; Microbiology; Sports science; Molecular biology, biophysics & biochemistry; Psychology; Others in biological sciences
Engineering & technology: Broadly-based programmes within engineering & technology; General engineering; Civil engineering; Mechanical engineering; Aerospace engineering; Naval architecture; Electronic & electrical engineering; Production & manufacturing engineering; Chemical, process & energy engineering; Others in engineering; Minerals technology; Metallurgy; Ceramics & glasses; Polymers & textiles; Materials technology not otherwise specified; Maritime technology; Biotechnology; Others in technology
Languages: Broadly-based programmes within languages; Linguistics; Comparative literary studies; English studies; Ancient language studies; Celtic studies; Latin studies; Classical Greek studies; Classical studies; Others in linguistics, classics & related subjects; French studies; German studies; Italian studies; Spanish studies; Portuguese studies; Scandinavian studies; Russian & East European studies; European studies; Others in European languages, literature & related subjects; Chinese studies; Japanese studies; South Asian studies; Other Asian studies; African studies; Modern Middle Eastern studies; American studies; Australasian studies; Others in Eastern, Asiatic, African, American & Australasian languages, literature & related subjects
Law: Broadly-based programmes within law; Law by area; Law by topic; Others in law
Computer science: Broadly-based programmes within computer science; Computer science; Information systems; Software engineering; Artificial intelligence; Others in computing sciences
Physical sciences: Broadly-based programmes within physical sciences; Chemistry; Materials science; Physics; Forensic & archaeological science; Astronomy; Geology; Science of aquatic & terrestrial environments; Physical geographical sciences; Others in physical sciences
Education: Broadly-based programmes within education; Training teachers; Research & study skills in education; Academic studies in education; Others in education
Historical and philosophical studies: Broadly-based programmes within historical & philosophical studies; History by period; History by area; History by topic; Archaeology; Philosophy; Theology & religious studies; Others in historical & philosophical studies
Medicine & dentistry: Broadly-based programmes within medicine & dentistry; Pre-clinical medicine; Pre-clinical dentistry; Clinical medicine; Clinical dentistry; Others in medicine & dentistry
Mass communications & documentation: Broadly-based programmes within mass communications & documentation; Information services; Publicity studies; Media studies; Publishing; Journalism; Others in mass communications & documentation
Architecture, building & planning: Broadly-based programmes within architecture, building & planning; Architecture; Building; Landscape design; Planning (urban, rural & regional); Others in architecture, building & planning
Mathematical sciences: Broadly-based programmes within mathematical sciences; Mathematics; Operational research; Statistics; Others in mathematical sciences
Agriculture & related subjects: Broadly-based programmes within agriculture & related subjects; Animal science; Agriculture; Forestry; Food & beverage studies; Agricultural sciences; Others in veterinary sciences, agriculture & related subjects
Veterinary science: Pre-clinical veterinary medicine; Clinical veterinary medicine & dentistry
(There were occasional changes to these lists throughout the years in our dataset, with these being the details of the 2008/09 data. Probably an unimportant detail, but worth bearing in mind.)