New subject data from UCAS show a big shift towards technology-based degrees, including a 400% jump in acceptances to artificial intelligence (AI) courses.

The final release of university and college level application and acceptance figures for the 2020 cycle reveals the continued popularity of STEM subjects shows no sign of waning.

Acceptances to computer science courses have risen by almost 50%, from 20,420 in 2011 to 30,090 in 2020. Acceptances to engineering courses are up 21% from 25,995 in 2011 to 31,545 in 2020 - driven by an increase in demand from 18-year olds.

Acceptances to the newer artificial intelligence courses have seen a 400% rise in the past decade (from just 65 in 2011 to 355 in 2020).

AI degrees and ethical challenges

Julia Adamson, Director of Education at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT said: ‘A growing and diverse pipeline of talent in Computer Science and AI is essential for the UK’s economic recovery and its global competitiveness. The establishment of the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) is giving more young people a positive experience of computing at school and helping to create demand for the subject at degree level and beyond.’

Funded by the Department for Education, the NCCE was set up in 2018 by a consortium made up of BCS, Raspberry Pi and STEM Learning. It aims to work with teachers to achieve a world-leading computing education for every child in England. The programme supports non-specialist and returning teachers with free resources, online and face-to-face training, and a network of local Computing Hubs, based in 34 schools.

Julia Adamson added: ‘AI degrees will attract an ever-wider range of students because this subject is vital to solving ethical challenges in every sector of the economy and society. BCS has supported universities since computing was first taught at degree level, and we’re still helping them today to embed ethical and professional good practice in Machine Learning and Data Science courses.’

Previously, the Government’s Office for AI commissioned BCS to write a report into what must be done to increase the number of students applying for MSc computer science courses, with the emphasis on widening the diversity of students applying for the courses. 

In the BCS report from June 2019 Scaling up the Ethical Artificial Intelligence MSc Pipeline, we said: ‘Taking all the data and opinions into account it is plausible to imagine a long-term future where there is a successful mixed MSc economy delivering the aspiration of 3000 AI MSc graduates a year. This would be through a mix of degree apprenticeships, degrees with year-long placements and degrees that embed employer engagement throughout the curriculum and have short, structured placements to top that up.’

The government adopted many of the recommendations set out in the report.

Demand for vocational courses remains strong

The UCAS data revealed that applications to vocational courses remain strong. Despite the removal of NHS bursaries in 2017, demand for nursing places is now almost at the same level seen in 2011 and acceptances have grown by 57% - representing an additional 13,635 students. With the expansion of medical places in the last few years, acceptances to medicine courses are at the highest level on record, growing 37% since 2017. 

In other areas, law increased from 22,720 acceptances in 2011 to 29,105 acceptances in 2020 and in business the rise was from 61,100 acceptances in 2011 to 75,515 in 2020.  

Humanities subjects have decreased in popularity over the last decade. English studies have seen a decrease from 10,020 acceptances in 2011 to 6,980 this year in 2020, and history and philosophical studies from 15,060 in 2011 to 12,870. 

Clare Marchant, Chief Executive of UCAS, said: ‘There are a lot of factors that go into what subjects’ students choose. It is pleasing to see that they are responding to economic cues with increased demand for subjects like engineering and, inspired by the work of the NHS, with more mature applicants and 18-year olds applying for nursing. 

‘The decline in accepts to languages could exacerbate the languages skills gap in the wake of Brexit, therefore it is important that action is taken to promote the benefits of languages across the education sector.’