Course availability

The University and College Union (UCU) have issued a report Course cuts: How choice has declined in higher education. The UCU press release give the headline figure as:

The number of full-time undergraduate courses on offer at UK universities has fallen by more than a quarter (27%) since 2006… Despite an increase in student numbers.

The press release gives as a key finding that “Single subject STEM courses down 15% and arts and humanities down 14%”.  (Given that, it is a little strange to see Times Higher Education putting the emphasis solely on arts and humanities courses.)

The focus from UCU is on choice, with general secretary Sally Hunt quoted saying:

This report shows that, while government rhetoric is all about students as consumers, the curriculum has actually narrowed significantly.
If we want to compete globally, we simply cannot have areas of the country where students do not have access to a broad range of courses.

This focus on geographical differences puts me in mind of the Steele report, “Keeping HE Maths where it Counts” (2007), which took an interest in the regional availability of courses with a broad range of entry requirements and had a finding about “mathematical deserts”, areas where students tended to stay local for university where mathematics is not available as an option.

Key findings aside, I was struck by the per subject data for course availability. I am not as aware of cross-subject comparisons as I should be. I am used to hearing a complaint that the professional and learned bodies in mathematics (IMA & LMS) only have about 7 thousand members, compared to forty or fifty thousand each for IOP and RSC, despite mathematics graduating nearly as many students per year as physics and chemistry combined (and what this says about how mathematics undergraduates view themselves as part of a wider mathematical community). This gives me the idea that mathematics is a widely available subject compared to others. This, it seems, may be a fallacy.

The table below is a reduced version of this table, which I compiled from data given in the Course cuts report. The totals refer to degree course provision in the UK. I have taken the liberty of combining a few lines from the original report. There were some subdivided disciplines with relatively few courses. I may, in my ignorance, be committing a sin as terrible as combining biology and computer science as the same, but I have combined three courses on history, two on law, three modern languages and two classics into single lines. These combinations are indicated in the table. I hope these are reasonable.

Subject 2012 total decline since 2006 decline as percentage of 2006 total Proportion of G100 Mathematics
I100 Computer Science 169 38 18.36% 2.49
N100 Business studies 151 11 6.79% 2.22
Q300 English studies 116 -4 -3.57% 1.71
Law: M100 Law by area & M200 Law by topic 145 6 3.97% 2.13
History: V100 History by period, V200 History by area & V300 History by topic 143 17 10.63% 2.1
L300 Sociology 92 14 13.21% 1.35
C100 Biology 88 11 11.11% 1.29
L200 Politics 79 2 2.47% 1.16
H200 Civil engineering 73 -2 -2.82% 1.07
L100 Economics 71 9 11.25% 1.04
G100 Mathematics 68 7 9.33% 1
F800 Physical geographical sciences 65 21 24.42% 0.96
F100 Chemistry 59 3 4.84% 0.87
L700 Human & social geography 50 13 20.63% 0.74
F300 Physics 47 -3 -6.82% 0.69
V500 Philosophy 45 3 6.25% 0.66
Modern languages: R100 French studies, R200 German studies & T100 Chinese studies 77 15 16.30% 1.13
Classics: Q600 Latin studies & Q700 Classical Greek studies 16 1 5.88% 0.24

In case you are interested, the numbers for the subjects the report claims the decline is most particularly in are:

For STEM: biology (down 11 to 88 courses, an 11% reduction of 2006 numbers), physical geographical sciences (down 21 to 65, a 24% reduction) and computer science (down 38 to 169, an 18% reduction);
For social sciences: human and social geography (down 13 to 50, a 21% reduction) and sociology (down 14 to 92, a 13% reduction);
For arts and humanities: French studies (down 10 to 26, a 21% reduction), German studies (down 6 to 21, a 17% reduction) and history by topic (down 13 to 34, a 27% reduction).

What I am most struck by is the number of courses still available for some subjects. Having thought mathematics was relatively available, based on a comparison with physics and chemistry,of the subjects included in the report I see only physical geographical sciences, chemistry, human and social geography, physics, philosophy and classics are less available. (I wondered about combining physical and human & social geography, which would take geography above mathematics, but decided against it because the report classified one as STEM and the other as Social sciences.)

There are more degree courses available to study in each of computer science, business, law, history, English, sociology, biology, politics, modern languages, civil engineering and economics than in mathematics.

Perhaps this isn’t unreasonable. Of course, there is always going to be variation and the availability will be demand-led, but when I see that an applicant wanting to study computer science, business, law or history has more than twice as many options as those wishing to study mathematics, and that mathematics is the twelfth most available subject out of eighteen in both 2012 and 2006, I can’t help feeling a little sad for my discipline. (Of course, the picture is even worse for other subjects; those I have listed as twice as available as mathematics have more than three times the number of physics courses available.)


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