The Tehan higher education reforms aim for ‘job ready graduates’. In that, the government’s goals align with those of most students. In recent ABS surveys asking students about their main reason for study, more than 80 per cent of bachelor-degree respondents gave a job-related reason. About 10 per cent gave interest or enjoyment as their main reason (chart below).
However, interest and work reasons are not mutually exclusive. When multiple reasons can be given interest in the field of study is the most popular answer, with over 90 per cent of respondents saying it is important (chart below). Training for a specific job is nominated by about three-quarters of respondents, with another ten per cent hoping to improve their job prospects without having a precise occupation in mind.
Interest comes out at number one, because it includes students who are interested only in the course content, as well as students who are interested in the course content and the job they can get after finishing the course.
The later survey results are from a first-year experience survey, but similar questions were asked in a survey conducted for the now almost-forgotten 1977 Williams inquiry into education and training. It’s remarkable how stable these results are, despite post-school higher education participation rates going from 16 to 40 per cent between the first and last surveys.
Students can have multiple interests, but research into the nature of interests suggests that they are not likely to be easily persuaded to take courses outside those interests. Although interests can change, they tend to be stable aspects of personality.
Grattan Institute research investigated interests via patterns of preferences in applications for university. Using tertiary admissions centre data, it took first preference applications and examined what other courses applicants ranked below their first choice (chart below). These are courses applicants might be persuaded to do instead, or have to do if not offered a place in a higher-ranked course.
In many fields a majority of second or lower preferences were for alternative courses in the same field, indicating a strong preference for one field.
But we can also see clusters of interests. There is cross-preferencing between humanities, creative arts, law and commerce. There are also science interest and health interest clusters of cross-preferences, along with cross-preferencing between science and health. Some students start with a science course in the hope of transferring to a health course.
Some cross-preferencing we might expect is not common, however. Engineering applicants are more likely to preference science or commerce courses than IT courses. And there is not much cross-preferencing between education and nursing, two caring, people-oriented professions.
While movements in student preferences are constrained by interests, we do observe changes, with some courses gaining market share and others losing it. There are charts showing historical movements at the end of the post.
Things are going on other than applicants changing from one course preference to another. The proportion of people going to university has increased significantly over time, and this is likely to be bringing in people with different interests.
Also, as the qualifications needed for certain jobs change the people whose interests align with those occupations now need to go to university, where once they could have done vocational or on-the-job training.
But we see some preference shifts happening over shorter timeframes than these long-term trends plausibly explain, and a later post will look at these in more detail.