Hot or not: what’s packing the uni lecture theatres

May 24, 2015 by

Packing them in: the popularity of courses, and even subjects, ebbs and flows but this is the decade of global studies and health courses. Photo: Craig Abraham

Julia Proctor –

Course and subject popularity changes over time in response to social change or employment opportunities.

From arts to aviation, sports management to veterinary science, Victoria’s universities offer a plethora of courses. But what are the emerging areas grabbing today’s students’ interest and what’s driving student choice?

According to Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre (VTAC) data, health subjects are right out on top when it comes to today’s students’ choice of university course. More than 26,000 students put undergraduate health courses at the top of their list when applying through VTAC to university in 2014. That’s a huge jump on just a year earlier, and 84 per cent more than chose management and commerce in 2014.

So what are some of the health courses on the up?

At RMIT, the Bachelor of Applied Science (Medical Radiations) – the science of using radiation to diagnose and treat human conditions – made it onto the list of the five most popular courses at the university in terms of VTAC first preferences in 2015.

“It’s a very strong demand subject,” RMIT school of medical sciences head David Pow says. He says four people apply for every place because the course is very practical, and there are jobs at the end. “It’s an established career which is well respected in the community,” he says. “You can use science on a daily basis to treat patients, while patient interaction is a big part of it. It’s an emotionally rewarding profession.”

At La Trobe, physiotherapy, nursing and midwifery were the most popular courses in 2015, all attracting a growing number of applications, Shawn Walker, director of schools engagement and student recruitment, says. “Health is the biggest mover for us,” he says. “The preferences for these courses have really increased.”

At both Victoria University and Monash, paramedics courses are on the rise, while at Deakin University, the Bachelor of Health Sciences (a generic health degree leading to careers in health promotion and prevention, or postgraduate study in areas including medicine or physio), has seen its enrolments rise 125 per cent in the past four years, with exercise and sport, nutrition, and psychology the most popular majors.

“It’s part of a broader trend of increased interest from school leavers in careers in health,” Deakin faculty of health pro vice-chancellor Brendan Crotty says.

“It’s an area where there are good employment opportunities, with demand expanding with the ageing population. People see it as a good employment pathway and it’s inherently a very interesting area.”

The ageing population is being tapped into at Melbourne University, where a newly launched free MOOC, a Massive Open Online Course, called “Rethinking Ageing: Are we prepared to live longer?” attracted nearly 5000 students from more than 125 countries.

“The area of ageing is very popular among students,” Lena Gan, program director for the university’s upcoming cross-disciplinary masters of ageing, says. “There is an enormous need for a skilled workforce in this sector.”

Outside of health, what are some of the other courses on the rise?

At the Australian Catholic University (ACU), students are signing up for dual degrees which include global studies, ACU National School of Arts head Michael Ondaatje​ says. “Global Studies is the course that really stands out.”

He puts rising student interest in global studies down to increased globalisation and the rise of the Asian century, but also down to the interdisciplinary nature of the programs that provide students with the tools to see globalisation’s social, cultural, economic and political footprints. The student exchanges offered as part of these programs are also appealing to students. “These enrich learning and translate into work ready skills which are transferable in the global market place,” he says.

In the arts faculty at Melbourne University, courses which offer applied, industry-integrated subjects with internships are in particular demand, as are subjects incorporating elements of sustainability, volunteering, social justice and good citizenship,  BA program director Parshia Lee-Stecum says.

“We facilitate students volunteering locally and overseas, in countries such as Indonesia and India. This has been increasingly popular in the last few years,” she says.

At Swinburne, digitally focused courses – digital media, games and animation – are hot, attracting increasing numbers of students.

“This is the time for games,” Troy Innocent, discipline leader of games and interactivity, says of the growth in student numbers. “This is what young people are doing to interact. Our numbers reflect the increasing role of games in culture and society.”

What are the subjects on the up when it comes to VCE?

In terms of absolute numbers, health-related subjects such as health and human development, psychology, physical education and biology have all had big increases in enrolments in the past decade. Each subject is in the top 10, with psychology at number three in 2014. In total, enrolments for these health-related subjects are up by more than 7,000 in the past decade.

“We have noticed an increase in students taking health-based subjects,” Brunswick Secondary College acting assistant principal Karen Ferguson says. She explains that a strong focus in the school on talking about health and wellbeing may be feeding into this uptake, while students are also seeing a career path in health. Particularly sought after careers include nursing and midwifery.

Further maths – the lower of the maths subjects and the second most popular VCE subject after English – has also seen a big total increase over the past decade.

However, Geoff Prince, director of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, says there has been a decline in those taking the more advanced maths subjects, maths methods and specialist maths.

“It deeply worries us,” he says. “Specialist maths and maths methods have been in decline in Victoria for a very long time. Maths methods is the gateway subject to science, technology and engineering at university and to maths teaching.”

In terms of percentage increase, sociology – the study of human social relationships – has been the star VCE performer over the past decade. Numbers enrolled in sociology are up by more than 200 per cent since 2006, to 896 in 2014.

Also on the rise in the past decade, with big percentage increases though often from small bases, have been English language, environmental science, Persian, outdoor and environmental studies, and Chinese as a second language.

Source: Hot or not: what’s packing the uni lecture theatres

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