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Are maths and science enrolments increasing?

In the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook the Government announced savings of $403.6 million over three years through a measure to increase the HECS amount for mathematics and science students from 2013. The increase will reverse the 2009 reduction in HECS which aimed at increasing enrolments in the science disciplines.

This post discusses the trends in enrolments following the 2008-2009 Budget measure.

In the 2008-2009 Budget the Rudd Government honoured an election commitment to reduce the HECS HELP fees for mathematics and science disciplines. The measure was implemented with passage of the Higher Education Support Amendment (2008 Budget Measures) Bill 2008.

From 1 January 2009 contributions were reduced from $7260 per year to the lowest level of $4077 equivalent to the national priority places of education and nursing.

Despite many studies that concluded that HECS costs do not deter students, including studies following the introduction of differential HECS rates in 1999, the Government reduced the HECS rate in a belief that more students would enrol in the mathematics and science disciplines.

The effect was immediate, in 2009 undergraduate applications for Natural and Physical Sciences increased by 17.1% on 2008 and increased again in 2010 by 13.1%. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) noted that ‘the two years’ growth more than reversed the declines in demand for this field between 2004 and 2008. This growth follows a suite of measures introduced in the 2008-09 Budget to encourage enrolments in Mathematics and Science.’

Increases in applications carried over to increasing enrolments: in 2009 commencing domestic student numbers in the broad discipline of Natural and Physical Sciences increased 13.6% on 2008, compared to the overall increase in commencing domestic students of 9.6%. In 2010 the increase continued with Natural and Physical Sciences enrolments recording the highest increase of any broad discipline: 12.6 % on 2009. In comparison overall commencing domestic students increased by 6.5%.

An alternative statistical source is for commencing bachelor places which also show increases: an increase of 8.7% in 2009 and 19.4% in 2010 on 2008. (see table below). Again these increases were higher than the increase for all commencing places. Application and enrolment statistics for 2011 are not yet publicly available.
Commencing Domestic Bachelor Places20082009Increase 2010Increase on 2008
Mathematical Sciences7 3728 0589.38 32812.9
Physics and Astronomy2 0052 1396.72 26813.1
Chemical Sciences3 5793 9089.24 35321.6
Earth Sciences9571 10715.71 11616.6
Biological Sciences11 16111 9447.013 27819.0
Other Sciences1 2861 48915.82 12865.5
All Science26 36028 6458.731 47119.4
All other disciplines1200051299318.213831915.3

Despite this evidence apparently supporting the 2008 decision, the Government has announced that from 2013 student contributions for mathematics, statistics and science units will return to the Band 2 amount, estimated to be $8353 in 2013. This measure will provide budget savings of $403.6 million over three years.

In a media release the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Chris Evans, stated: ‘The reduction in student contributions for mathematics, statistics and science units since 2009 has not been effective in substantially increasing the number of students undertaking maths and science at university. Students are predominantly motivated not by price but by their interests, abilities and career preferences when selecting courses.’