Earlier in the year, I reported evidence that contrary to my earlier expectations demand for science courses, for which the student contribution rate has been cut by by more than $3,000 a year, was going up significantly.
The national final applications data shows that science did indeed observe a surge in applications, up 17% in a market that was up 5% overall. The market share gain was 0.72%, within the historical pattern of annual movements of more than +/- 1% market share being rare, but still a big change (some previous U of M professional courses now requiring a science course first explains some, but not all, the increase).
So did the price decrease cause this market share shift? There is some other evidence in the applications data consistent with this interpretation. Past research suggests that people have clusters of aptitudes, skills and interests. On this theory we would expect declining market share in disciplines that draw on similar clusters to science. This is apparent in agriculture (-.49%) and health (-.34%). It is not apparent in engineering (+.32%) or IT (+.11%).
There is however one particularly curious aspect to the applications data. Science isn’t the biggest winner in gaining applications share. The ‘science/culture/creative arts’ category is up by .84%, and if we take out law-related subjects (absurdly put in this category by the ABS) it breaks through the 1% market share barrier, with a 1.06% gain. There have been no changes to prices in these courses.
This suggests another theory. Arts and science – two generalist courses – between them account for 70% of the increase in applications between 2008 and 2009 (off 32% combined market share in 2008). Maybe the applications increase is driven by people who, until the sudden economic deterioration late in the 2008 school year, weren’t planning on going straight to university in 2009. For people without clear course preferences, options that are both general and relatively cheap make sense.
I still don’t think the price cut was good policy, as there was never any evidence that more science applications were necessary or desirable. But in the market conditions prevailing in late 2008 and early 2009, it may have swayed some students towards science courses as one way to sit out a poor new entrant labour market.