What’s going on with science applications #2?

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.

5 thoughts on “What’s going on with science applications #2?

  1. Do you have the break down into subjects?
    It’s really hard to tell exactly what is going on without it, especially if the increase is in generalist courses. This could mean arts courses are simply getting re-badged as science courses to try and get into a better funding category, or it could mean that more students now want to do psychology (in science, not arts) now the Medicare rebate stuff has come in and people know about it (this is certainly true where I work) but little else has changed. A final alternative I can think of is that due to increased applications because of the recession, there really are more science students, distributed into either those courses that can be expanded easily or those that previously were not over enrolled. Since some science areas have been under enrolled for years (or at least not over enrolled), it’s likely it would have been simpler to create new positions than in other courses with high demand.


  2. I’m not sure how applications are coded (consistent with DEEWR’s woeful record in timely data publication there is no sign of the written report that contains such information), but presumably according to the major field of study in the course. I can’t see that it is likely that rebadging of courses has much to do with it – arts courses with science components would still be coded as arts). And any large scale arts to science reclassification is inconsistent with the larger increase in arts applications.

    I’m only talking about demand data in this post, but the supply story is interesting too. There was a matching increase in offers, of just under 17% (perhaps the policy of allowing unis to enrol above their quotas is having an effect). However the bigger story is in acceptances, up 19% overall and up by 30% in science. I’ve only just started analysing the applications data, but it looks like many people who would previously have rejected offers this year accepted them. This will be particularly important for science, which despite the increase in demand still relies on second or lower preference applications to fill its places.

    A prediction: the trend towards lower attrition rates will reverse itself, as people who never really wanted to go to university now drop out.


  3. “I can’t see that it is likely that rebadging of courses has much to do with it – arts courses with science components would still be coded as arts)”
    Actually, I think it’s more complicated than that, since you can have essentially identical courses under different headers, especially for social sciences, and so it’s possible to force people into degrees like Psychology (Science) and Economics (Business) versus Psychology (Arts) or Economics (Arts), depending on how you set up the second major of courses (or even clump of subjects). This is certainly fiddleable at universities that don’t offer open do-anything style degrees, since many students are not that concerned about their second major, so you can offer what is most marketable (you don’t want, for example, a degree called “social and behavioral science (Arts)”, since even 18 year olds associate it with left-wing loonies, as do their parents). If science is more marketable/makes you more money, all these courses will start getting badged with science (no doubt if more unis start using the MM that will happen even more if the pre-requisite to various degrees is “science”, as I think it is for graduate entry medicine).
    I also don’t think that you can tell whether reclassifying has happened since applications in many things are up, and it’s simple to expand many Arts courses. So you could have had re-badging, an increase in science courses, and an increase in Arts courses (i.e., three independent effects going on).
    As a weak hypothesis, I’ll bet that in case the data comes out, most of the increase in applications won’t be for any of the hard sciences — it will be for the soft sciences that could classify as both arts or science depending on the other parts of the degree, and part of that will be rebadging.
    “I’ve only just started analysing the applications data, but it looks like many people who would previously have rejected offers this year accepted them”
    Perhaps it isn’t the case at Melbourne with the MM, but you could have found that out by talking to almost anyone teaching anywhere else!


  4. Conrad – While some courses could be classified in more than one way, compared to 2008 we don’t have any evidence that it has happened or more than a very modest theory as to why it might (put in a few more science units and the cost will be marginally lower for students).

    And while the number of places can often be expanded, that will not usually influence demand since this is rarely announced in advance (though it will affect enrolments in the courses for which demand exceeds supply).

    Price plus sitting out the recession still seems like the most plausible major explanation to me.

    Given that DEEWR has so far failed to release detailed 2008 data, I am not holding my breath waiting for 2009 figures!

    (I have heard the anecdotal evidence about students going straight to uni because of the recession instead of rejecting offers, and it would be very surprising if was not true, but in a field in which intuitions are often wrong I was not going to risk being quickly proved wrong by my own reading of the data:).


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