Reports that the numbers of students taking science courses are declining has been challenged by new research from the Higher Education Authority (HEA).
According to an analysis of recent trends conducted by the HEA, initiatives to attract more students to science studies are bearing fruit and there is justifiable interest in the numbers of Irish students taking science courses at second and third level.
While the number of acceptances to science courses in 2005 (11pc) are down from 12pc in 2000, the number of students choosing science as their first-preference application has increased by 1pc, up from 5pc in 2000 to 6pc in 2005.
According to the HEA’s report, first-preference applications are a good indicator of what students wish to do at third level as they give a measure of changing discipline ‘popularity’.
Figures drawn from the HEA’s statistical sources show that CAO applications for places on science courses are up and currently over 9,400 students are enrolled on science courses from level 6/7 (higher certificate/ordinary degree) to level 8 (honours bachelor degree). There are now more than 8,300 students at level 8 and a further 1,100 at level 7/6.
As a country which is intent on playing a leading role in the knowledge economy, a strong skills base in the sciences is essential for further sustained growth, said the HEA. Tom Boland, HEA chief executive, challenged the perception students are rejecting courses in science with obvious implications for future economic and social well-being.
“The message which should be taken from these figures is that an increasing number of young people see science as an interesting study choice and as offering good career prospects. While there is no need to be complacent about the current position, it is important to acknowledge that the patterns of uptake are improving.”
The number of students with better Leaving Certs opting for science has increased along with the amount of courses available. According to the research, the proportion of students with 450 points (an average of 75pc or a B3 in six honours subjects) or more taking science programmes has increased while the number of science courses on offer has jumped by 50pc over the last five years.
The recent First Destination of Award Recipients 2004 report showed that 68pc of level 7/6 graduates continue to further study to obtain a higher qualification and the number of students enrolled on science PhD courses increased by 15pc, from 1,300 in 2000/01 to 1,500 in 2004/05. Similarly, increases of 17pc were seen in masters degree enrolments to approximately 1,200 in 2004/05. Over 40pc (300) of PhD graduates in 2004 were in the science disciplines.
On an international level Ireland performs particularly strongly in terms of the output of science graduates at higher certificate and ordinary degree level, said the HEA. At the level of undergraduate and postgraduate honours degrees, Ireland has the seventh highest output of science graduates, it claimed.
Boland commented: “This is a strong position but one that will require continual improvement for us to maintain our competitive edge and to develop the skills base necessary for the major expansion of advanced research and PhD graduates envisaged under the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation.”
At second level, of the number of pupils doing a science subject for the Leaving Cert the proportion studying Chemistry has gone up by 3 percentage points from 11pc in 2000 to 14pc in 2004; the proportion doing Biology had increased from 46pc to 47pc over the same period while Physics has remained the same at 15pc.
The proportion getting a Grade ‘A’ on the higher-level paper has grown by almost 6pc in Physics while the proportion getting an ‘A’ grade in Physics/Chemistry is up from 11.3pc to 20pc.
By Elaine Larkin