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Demand and supply in higher education subjects

This page shows data and evidence produced in 2012 about the current and future supply of graduates and postgraduates by broad subject area. 

The data give a ten-year picture of the numbers studying at A-level, applying to higher education (HE), and studying in HE at undergraduate and postgraduate level.‌


These datasets inform our approach to strategically important and vulnerable subjects. We use them to monitor where a subject might be at risk, and they help us and our partner organisations decide when, where and how to intervene.

We do not rely only on these data. Evidence from universities and colleges, employers, the Government and learned societies and subject associations also inform our approach. The HEFCE SIVS advisory group includes representatives from all these stakeholders and will consider this data each year.

Key messages

There has been a considerable improvement in the flow of graduates in three of the subjects we have been addressing through our SIVS investments since 2005 – maths, physics and chemistry – but we need through the next phase of our SIVS programme to sustain the momentum in these subjects and continue to address the variable patterns in Engineering and Modern Foreign Languages (MFL).

There are also issues to be addressed with regard to student opportunity in certain disciplines and the long-term sustainability of postgraduate provision, which we are addressing through our new programmes of work in these areas

Overall numbers

A-level entries, UCAS acceptances and overall undergraduate (UG), postgraduate taught (PGT) and postgraduate research (PGR) numbers have all risen over the last three years (see tables 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 3.1 and 4.1).

These overall increases are not always reflected at subject level, where some areas have declined in overall numbers.

At UG level, numbers in anatomy and physiology, general engineering, and medicine all dropped slightly over this period (see tables 2.3.1, 2.3.2, and 2.3.2a).

Maths, physics and chemistry

Over the last three years, numbers have been increasing in maths, physics and chemistry, both in terms of A-level entries (table 2.1.2) and the total UG population (table 2.3.2).

For maths and physics, PGT and PGR numbers also went up over the period. For chemistry there was an increase in PGR but a small drop in PGT numbers (tables 3.2.2 and 4.2.2).


In overall terms, UG numbers in engineering and technology have grown over the last three years, but this overall growth masks differences between different disciplines within engineering.

All experienced year-on-year growth except civil engineering, which fluctuated between years, and general engineering, where numbers also fluctuated and fell in overall terms across the three years.

The patterns for UK domicile and international students are broadly consistent with this overall trend, although international patterns require careful monitoring given the high proportion of such students across the Engineering subjects.

Modern foreign languages

A-level entries to Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) fluctuated somewhat over the last three years, but over the period dropped by 2 per cent (table 2.1).

Overall UCAS acceptances in MFL also fell by 2 per cent over the same period – within this broad subject area, acceptances to Asian studies, Iberian studies and German and Scandinavian studies increased slightly, but acceptances to all other MFL subjects declined (table 2.2.3). 

Overall UG numbers in MFL increased by 2 per cent (table 2.3). The PGT population in MFL fell by 10 per cent over the last three years (table 3.1), but numbers of PGR students increased by 13 per cent (table 4.1).

UK-domiciled students

The number of UK domiciled UG went up by 6 per cent over this period (table 2.4). At a broad subject level, UK numbers increased in STEM (by 7 per cent) and in arts, humanities and social sciences (by 6 per cent). 

Clinical subjects and modern foreign languages showed no overall growth. Specific subject areas where numbers of UK domiciled students fell were medicine (-2 per cent), anatomy and physiology (-3 per cent), civil engineering (-2 per cent), general engineering (-7 per cent) and architecture, built environment and planning (-1 per cent). 

For PGT, UK domiciled student numbers rose in all broad subject groupings (table 3.2) except modern foreign languages, where they fell by 22 per cent, while for PGR, UK student numbers grew in all broad subject groupings (table 4.2). 

International and EU students

At UG level, growth in international numbers has continued in the last three years, and at 20 per cent, outpaced the growth in home student numbers, which increased by just 6 per cent (table 2.4). 

This pattern is true across all of the high level subject areas. The only discrete subject areas where international student numbers have declined or not increased at a higher rate than home numbers are dentistry, biosciences, general engineering, agriculture and forestry, sports science and leisure studies (tables 2.4.1, 2.4.2, 2.4.2a and 2.4.4). 

In the PGT population, the overall increases in numbers are dominated by international and EU students (table 3.2), but for PGR there has been a less significant growth in international numbers (table 4.2). In some areas of PGR (for example, biosciences, and chemical engineering) international numbers have fallen while home numbers have grown (tables 4.2.2 and 4.2.2a). 


The total numbers of part-time (PT) students at UG level (excluding the Open University, as explained in the tables) continued to drop over the last three years. This trend is seen across all high-level UG subject areas, especially in modern foreign languages – but with the single exception of clinical subjects (table 2.5). 

Within individual subject areas, some areas saw small increases in PT provision: biosciences, general engineering, and business and management (tables 2.5.2, 2.5.2a and 2.5.4). 

In the postgraduate taught (PGT) population there was some PT growth in all grouped subject areas, with the exception of modern foreign languages (table 3.3), and for postgraduate research (PGR), PT numbers went down in STEM subjects as a whole, with increases in all other grouped subject areas (table 4.3). 


This is the first time we have published data on the sex of students broken down by subject area.

At UG level, engineering, computer science, mathematics, physics are all male-dominated, while MFL, nursing, education, and psychology are all female-dominated (table series 2.7). 

The proportion of females in general engineering has decreased significantly in the last three years, and particularly since 2009-10.

Other than this, the balance between numbers of men and women in each subject area has been broadly stable.

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About the data on demand and supply in HE subjects

We have published the following datasets:

The data are separated between undergraduate, postgraduate taught and postgraduate research, and cover the following time periods: 

  • A-level entries 2002-03 to 2011-12 
  • UCAS acceptances 2002-03 to 2011-12 
  • HESA data 2001-02 to 2010-11 

Each dataset groups the data by broad subject areas (STEM, arts, humanities and so on) and then breaks the data down further into separate subject areas.

Some of the key findings are summarised in the adjacent tab. Unless otherwise specified, these summaries refer to the trends across the three most recent years’ data.

Using the data

The HEFCE SIVS advisory group will consider this data in detail at its next meeting (in early 2013). It will use the evidence to provide advice on the future focus of our work on strategically important and vulnerable subjects.


While the improvements in numbers studying maths, physics and chemistry are encouraging to note, we believe it is a priority to sustain the momentum in these areas. 

Our funding for high-cost subjects will play a part in this, as will the legacy of the national HE STEM programme. In engineering, we will work with the Royal Academy of Engineering and other partners to explore the particular risks to subjects in this area. 

Modern foreign languages

We are still concerned by the data on the health of modern foreign language disciplines, particularly in relation to demand for undergraduate language programmes. 

We are continuing to fund demand-raising activity as we have since 2006, currently through the Routes into Languages programme.

It has been suggested that the cost of the year abroad may discourage students thinking about studying languages at HE level. We were pleased to note that the Government has introduced a limit on the year abroad fee. This will be 15 per cent of the maximum fee cap, and loans will be made available for these students. 

We have announced a supplementary contribution to institutions for the year abroad, which will be in the region of £2,250 per student from 2014-15. 

Postgraduate study

During our evidence-gathering in 2011 many concerns were expressed about the future of postgraduate provision, particularly given the lack of availability of loans for PG courses and the increased levels of UG debt that new PG students will carry, from 2015-16 onwards. 

Given these issues, we are undertaking a comprehensive programme of work to build a better understanding of the postgraduate sector, and seek evidence of any vulnerabilities that may arise as a result of the fee and funding changes. 

We have also introduced a postgraduate funding supplement for PGT provision, in addition to the HEFCE price-group based funding, of £1,100 per FTE, from 2012-13. 

Student opportunity

While our SIVS policy is about securing the continued availability of subjects at a broad level, there is also an overlap with our work on student opportunity, where we are aware that there may be equality and diversity issues about the student profile of particular disciplines or subjects. 

Institutions already look to address these issues through their access agreements and WP strategies – for example, through subject-specific outreach work. Through our joint work with OFFA we will be looking to develop a better understanding of this area. We would also be interested to use our Catalyst Fund to invest in programmes that aim to help address equality and diversity and participation issues in relation to subjects.

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