Do we have too many science students?

An article in this morning’s Australian reports complains that, at some universities, the cut-off score for a course in Chinese medicine is higher than for a traditional ‘Western’ science degree. This has Education Minister Julie Bishop suggesting that we need to encourage more students to study science ‘to ensure the future needs of the nation are met’ and International Organisation for Science and Technology Education chairman Dr Terry Lyons worrying that ‘low levels made science even less attractive to students’.

Demand for science courses does seemed to have declined over time, though it is hard to say by exactly how much, since IT courses were classified under science in applications data before 2001. But adding together science and IT, numbers were higher in the 1990s than now. As a share of total applications science itself been fairly steady since then, with 6.79% in 2001 and 6.53% in 2006. But Dr Lyons seems to be wrong about low cut-off scores deterring good students. As the AVCC’s analysis of applications data shows, science attracted 10.9% of students with ENTER scores of 90 or above. Students are driven more by their interests than the status obsessions that afflict academics.

Though applications are holding up, science is one of the few disciplines in which first-preference demand is consistently below supply. Given there are other disciplines in which supply is significantly short of demand and which lead to professions with labour market shortages it would seem sensible to move places from science into other disciplines. But would this threaten, as Bishop worries, the ‘future needs of the nation being met’?

The answer to that is almost certainly no. Except in low-paid professions like teaching, there is no evidence of shortages in scientifically qualified personnel. Unlike several other graduate occupations, they don’t appear in skills shortages lists and science graduates in some fields have more difficulty than other graduates in finding full-time work. And with over 8,000 people enrolled in science PhDs there are plenty of potential researchers working their way through the system.

Rather than worrying about hypothetical shortages of scientists in the future, we should be more worried about existing shortages in a wide range of health-related fields. If the normal pressures of supply and demand had been allowed to operate, the system would have re-balanced itself years ago – solving, along the way, the ‘problem’ of low ENTER scores for science courses. But as centrally controlled systems are prone to doing, we are producing too much of things people don’t want and too little of what they do want.