Science has been one of the most popular university courses over the last few years, with strong increases in applications year after year since 2009. The demand shift coincided with a slashing of student contributions by about 40%. This had seemed to be a possible exception to the general empirical rule that changes to student contributions don’t affect demand (some of the history is in Graduate Winners, pp 77-79).
As part of a long series of measures to reduce higher education spending, science student contributions were put back up to pre-2009 levels for 2013, an 80% price increase in one year. If the discount was driving demand, we would expect to see higher student charges reduce demand. New statistics released today show that this has not happened.
In fact, as can be seen in the chart below, numbers continued to grow strongly. They were up another 4%, in a market that was up only 0.5% overall. Only agriculture grew by more in percentage terms, and only health grew by more in absolute numbers. Science offers increased by 3.3%, with overall offers up 0.6%
Consistent with the idea that genuine increased interest in science behind this growth, science’s share of 90+ ATAR students increased from an already high 41.4% last year to 41.7% this year. More detailed data comparing 2008 and 2010 shows that science 2010 ATARs were stable at the 90th percentile on 98, that the median had improved from 88 to 90, and that the 10th percentile had improved from 71 to 76. This is the reverse of what we would expect if low fees were drawing in relatively uninterested and low-performing students.
So what explains it? One possibility is that even though student contributions may not have had a big influence on their own, as part of a broader government effort to promote science they helped grab attention. Chief Scientist Ian Chubb continues to promote science courses, albeit often with more enthusiasm than accuracy.
As I have long pointed out, there is no shortage of science graduates. The 2011 census showed again that, with the exception of earth sciences, science graduates have lower rates of professional and managerial employment than people with degrees in areas that draw on similar interests, skills and attributes. I would not want to discourage people from pursuing something that they are passionate about. But I fear that some students may have been misled by government officials, and will face significant problems finding work. The first of the science boom students would have completed their qualifications at the end of 2011, and so they are not yet showing in the numbers below.