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UCAS figures show 400% increase in students enrolled on AI courses

Clare Marchant, Chief Executive at UCAS
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Students turn to technology with university choices – @UCAS figures have revealed demand for #STEM courses is on the rise, with the number of students studying #AI at university surging by 400% 

New subject data from UCAS shows a big shift towards technology-based degrees mirroring recent trends, with the last decade seeing impressive growth in engineering and computer science subjects, including a 400% jump in acceptances to artificial intelligence (AI) courses.

The final release of university and college level application and acceptance figures for the 2020 cycle reveals the continued popularity of STEM subjects shows no sign of waning. Acceptances to computer science courses have risen by almost 50% (from 20,420 in 2011 to 30,090 in 2020); and acceptances to engineering courses are up 21% from 25,995 in 2011 to 31,545 in 2020 – driven by an increase in demand from UK 18 year olds; whilst acceptances to the newer artificial intelligence (AI) courses have seen a 400% rise in the past decade (from just 65 in 2011 to 355 in 2020).

Julia Adamson, Director of Education at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT said:

“A growing and diverse pipeline of talent in Computer Science and AI is essential for the UK’s economic recovery and its global competitiveness. The establishment of the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) is giving more young people a positive experience of computing at school and helping to create demand for the subject at degree level and beyond.

“AI degrees will attract a wider range of students than ever as AI becomes essential to solving ethical challenges in every sector of the economy and society. BCS has supported universities since computing was first taught at degree level, and we’re still helping them today to embed ethical and professional good practice in Machine Learning and Data Science courses.”

Other trends in today’s release of data show:

  • Nursing demand remains strong: despite the removal of NHS bursaries in 2017, demand for nursing places is now almost at the same level seen in 2011 (62,920 applicants made a nursing choice in 2020 compared to 63,275 in 2011) and acceptances have grown by 57% – representing an additional 13,635 students. 
  • With the expansion of medical places in the last few years, acceptances to medicine courses are at the highest level on record, growing 37% since 2017.
  • Law increased from 22,720 acceptances in 2011 to 29,105 acceptances in 2020, with substantial increases to both higher and medium tariff providers across this period.
  • Business increased from 61,100 acceptances in 2011 to 75,515 in 2020.Growth in acceptances across all provider tariff bands – with by far the largest increase to higher tariff providers.
  • Psychology acceptances increase from 16,685 in 2011 to 26,200 in 2020. Again, there were increases across all tariff bands, with medium and higher tariff providers experiencing the largest increases.
  • Humanities subjects have decreased in popularity over the last decade. English studies have seen a decrease from 10,020 acceptances in 2011 to 6,980 this year in 2020, and history and philosophical studies from 15,060 in 2011 to 12,870, though the data shows this decline seems to be confined to lower and medium tariff providers.  

Of concern is the significant decline in language subjects. For a post-Brexit Britain, the need for languages is likely to remain strong, yet acceptances to modern language degree courses have decreased by 36% – from 6,005 in 2011 to 3,830 in 2020 across all tariff groups, with a decrease of 13%. This drop in demand is seen alongside a decrease in language A level entrants over the same timeframe.

Clare Marchant, Chief Executive at UCAS, said:

“There are a lot of factors that go into what subjects students choose. It is pleasing to see that they are responding to economic cues with increased demand for subjects like engineering and, inspired by the work of the NHS, with more mature applicants and 18 year olds applying for nursing.

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“The decline in accepts to languages could exacerbate the languages skills gap in the wake of Brexit, therefore it is important that action is taken to promote the benefits of languages across the education sector.”

Geoffrey Taylor, Head of Academic Programmes at SAS UK & Ireland

“The importance of analytical calculation has been further reinforced by the pandemic, which is why we are seeing unprecedented demand for analytical and AI skills. As the use of data-driven technologies grows, so too will demand for people with the skills to drive the software and undertake the analysis.

“While it’s therefore pleasing to see more students now studying technology and AI-related courses, it’s important to note that real-world case studies are generally seen as the most effective tool for mastering the skills needed. Further education institutions need access to non-sensitive real-world data so that from the outset, students learn that data can be complex and messy, often incomplete and occasionally even incorrect. Real-world case studies equip Gen Z with practical data skills which they’ll be able apply in the data-driven world.

“Nurturing the right skills for future growth is not a short-term game, but one which starts with education. The rising number of STEM courses and students, together with the government’s skills frameworks supporting the national Industrial Strategy will, in time, combine to overcome the country’s current skills gap. It will ensure that individually and nationally we can benefit from the huge opportunities that the digital era is opening up, and contribute to the country’s recovery from the pandemic.”

Lydia Amarquaye, Education Policy Adviser, IMECHE comments:

“It is encouraging to see that a growing number of young people are taking up courses in engineering and associated STEM subjects. We hope this will only increase as young people see the employability and value of engineers through their response to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In Engineering UK’s briefing paper Young people and Covid-19, it was seen that young people were generally more aware of the role that engineers played in the effort to combat the pandemic. Some were also more aware of the importance of having a job that enabled them to make a positive societal contribution. This group of people, labelled as ‘Social Artists’ in an Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ report Five Tribes: Personalising Engineering Education, may have previously not seen engineering as a career that was useful for addressing societal needs.

“Through the Institution’s accreditation programmes, we continue to monitor engineering degrees to ensure that the skills and knowledge being taught at universities are relevant for industry and the ever-evolving demands on society, including energy, and sustainability.”

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