It was welcome news to see that UCAS’ university entry figures for the 2020 cycle reveal a continued increase in STEM and medicine courses.

The UK has faced long-standing issues of skills shortages in technology, medicine and engineering so this may come as some relief to businesses and government officials alike as the UK sets its sights on becoming a ‘scientific superpower.’

Increased uptake in maths, computer science and business courses all rate highly in terms of graduate employment and can be critical indicators of skills needed for economic growth and recovery. However, the significant decrease in acceptances to language courses is very concerning to the Government’s aspiration of a “Global Britain” and will be vital to our future prosperity.

What do the statistics say?

Amongst the courses that saw a continued increase in their uptake:

  • Acceptances to computer science courses have risen from 20,420 in 2011 to 30,090 in 2020
  • Acceptances to AI courses have increased from 65 in 2011 to 355 in 2020
  • Acceptances to engineering courses have increased from 25,995 in 2011 to 31,545 in 2020
  • Acceptances to business courses increased from 61,100 in 2011 to 75,515 in 2020

Over the past decade, humanities have declined in popularity. Acceptances to English studies, history and philosophical studies have declined from 25,080 in 2011 to 19,850 in 2020.

Another subject that has seen a steep decline in university entrants over the past decade has been languages. The number of students entering language courses decreased from 6,005 in 2011 to 3,830 in 2020. UCAS found that this drop in demand is seen alongside a decrease in language A-level entrants over the same timeframe.

Another trend observed over the ten-year period, is the growing proportion of women going to university. In 2020 women made up 58% of accepted applicants. The high proportions of men in engineering and computing have remained but this is traveling in the right direction. According to analysis of the gender split in applications to engineering courses in 2020, 80% were from men compared to 20% from women. In computing, this is less with 17% of applications being made by women.

This is progress. In 2012, 14.6% of engineering and technology undergraduates were female. However, it is still some way from NCUB’s target of 30% engineering and technology undergraduates in the UK being female by 2030. The increase in applications from women has coincided with an increase from men, albeit less of an increase.

More STEM students is welcome but decrease in language uptake is concern

The increase in uptake in STEM and medicine subjects is welcome. The UK has had long-standing skills shortages in medicine, technology and engineering. These skill shortages have hampered the country’s productivity.

However, the steep decline in numbers of those studying languages is concerning. As Vicky Gough from the British Council says: “There has never been a more crucial time for the UK to recognise the significant role of languages in effective diplomacy, security and international collaboration.”

Perhaps most concerning is that the decrease in those studying non-European languages has been even more dramatic. There were only 905 accepted applicants to those courses in 2020, a decrease of 37% compared to 2011. Given the growing political and economic influence of countries where English is not the first language, there needs to be sustained effort to increase the amount of foreign language speakers.

This is as crucial to the UK’s economy as is our global diplomacy. Our recent Taskforce report, Research to Recovery, identified that “The UK needs to act as a global competitor in a global R&D and innovation market”. The Taskforce recommends that the Government develops and delivers a comprehensive foreign direct investment strategy for R&D. Navigating our position in a global market will require skills that go beyond just STEM subjects, communication and language will play a huge part in how we move forward.

The increase in uptake of those studying STEM subjects has been an effort undertaken by business, universities, government and schools. It is important that this continues. Increasing the amount of people studying languages would require a similar collaborative effort.