Tuesday, September 3, 2013

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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