[ASC-list] Student numbers in science at universities

Will Rifkin willrifkinphd at gmail.com
Thu Jan 19 02:55:58 UTC 2012

Niall, Alison, Jesse, et al,

What is going on with university science enrolments?  Good question.  

There are many simple and obvious answers, as someone once said, and they are all wrong.  In reality, they may all be contributing factors.  

A decade's experience in working with university recruiting staff suggests to me that student preferences are driven by a range of parameters, some of which actually include interest in the topic of study.  

1.  Fees for science and engineering programs have been halved for a few years, and that can stimulate student preferences.  Note, though, that some students may be opting to complete their major in psychology as part of a science degree program rather than as part of an arts degree program.  Psychology is one of the big drawing cards in many faculties of science and health science. Mathematics has seen a bump as majors in financial mathematics and related areas are siphoning students from commerce faculties or admitting students without the entry score required for commerce.  

2.  Increased places for postgraduate study of medicine can have a substantial impact.  I coordinated a first-year premedical subject that increased in enrolment from 60 students to about 200 students.  You will see young people who want to be doctors distributed across biomedical science, health science, medicinal chemistry, optometry, perhaps even veterinary science.  

3.  Students select their preferences by 'spending' their entry score.  So, if your university has a science degree with an entry score of 75, it would make sense to develop an 'advanced science' program with an entry score of 95.  That gives the science degree some prestige.  Then, subdivide the rest.  Offer another program with an entry score of 90.  A third program with an entry score of 85.  Each time, you are carving out students who will opt for a program with a threshold of 85, for example, rather than 83.  Science marketing at universities have become increasingly sophisticated in this respect.  

4.  Staff experience on open days indicates an increased interest among young people in addressing climate change.  

5.  Improvements in first-year subjects and programs for transition to university may be having an impact, as students in university may be indicating that studying science is not half bad.  

6.  The television show (not the hypothesis) Big Bang Theory seems to be stimulating 'nerd pride' among young people (anecdotal evidence suggests).  However, it is not clear whether it is convincing more students to select science or just making those who prefer science to be more convinced.  

A study that came out in recent years presented survey results indicating that preferences are affected the most strongly by a student's high school teachers and by whether the student can envision themself in the career.  There are other influences, but these two are the strongest.  

What are causal factors for increased preferences this year?  Not sure.  Plus, it would be worthwhile keeping track to see what graduating numbers are.  


Will Rifkin, PhD
Exec. Mgr., SaMnet  
Assoc Prof, School of Physics, U of Sydney 
Director - ALTC New Media for Science Project  
Administered in the Faculty of Science, University of New South Wales  

willrifkinphd at gmail.com  
+61 402 612 586    


From: Niall Byrne <niall at scienceinpublic.com.au>
Date: 19 January 2012 12:46:04 PM AEDT
To: "ASC list (asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au)" <asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au>
Subject: [ASC-list] Science in demand this year

Dear ASCers,
I was contacted by Channel Ten yesterday and asked to comment on the demand for science places in universities.
I knew nothing, but then looked around a bit and it was good news.
Science at the University of Melbourne was the most popular course in the Victoria with about  9,000 applications, plus nearly 5,000 for biomedical courses. The demand has pushed up the entry score (ATAR) up to 90.15. A decade ago you could get in with a 75.
Science at Monash was the third most popular course with 4500 applications. (Arts at Melbourne was second).
Health science was the top choice in Adelaide with 9443 applications, up four per cent on 2011.  Information technology was up 26 per cent.
I’m told that there’s similar good news around the country but I’ve not dug out the numbers.
This is good news. Is it repeated around the country. And does anyone know why its happening? What have we (collectively) done right? Or is there some larger social trend at work?
Niall Byrne
Creative Director
Science in Public

82 Hudsons Road, Spotswood  Vic  3015
PO Box 2076 Spotswood VIC 3015
03 9398 1416, 0417 131 977
niall at scienceinpublic.com.au
Twitter @scienceinpublic
Full contact details at www.scienceinpublic.com.au

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