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University applications: which university course holds the largest gender disparity in 2020?

12 Aug 2020

According to UCAS, a record 40.5% of all 18 years olds in the UK applied for university in 2020, an increase from 38.9% the previous year. Lockdown does not appear to have halted applicants, with prospective students clearly still keen to study at university in autumn.

With hundreds of thousands of undergraduates set to start their higher education journey in September, the employment lawyers at Richard Nelson LLP decided to look into the shifting pattern of popularity for subject courses. As we see an increasing number of students applying for university each year, we wanted to uncover how the applications for each subject group have changed since 2011 and how this differs for both males and females.

The results by subject group

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Applications to Medicine and Dentistry courses

The gender gap between the number of male and female applicants for Medicine and Dentistry courses has grown during the past decade.

In 2011, 43,800 males applied for this subject group compared with 53,610 females. In 2020, there were 37,960 male applications and 65,950 female applications. The data, therefore, shows a sharp decrease in male applications for medicine and dentistry of 13.33% and a rise in female applications of 23.02% in the last decade.

The increase in popularity for medicine courses is reiterated by data from the GMC showing that 56% of foundation doctors in the UK are females compared with 44% who are male. The overall increase was first reported in 2016, a trend which has continued as the proportion of female to male doctors increased over the years. This trend is now beginning to slow, a factor the GMC attributed to the career breaks female doctors may take or the length of time which it takes female doctors to complete training.

There remains a low proportion of females training in surgery, reported at 32% in 2017, whereas training programmes such as obstetrics and gynecology, paediatrics and child health, and public health see high female representation of over 70% compared to their male counterparts.

Applications to Engineering Courses

The engineering industry within the UK is widely known for having a significant gender divide. This is reflected in the applicant figures for engineering, where in 2020, there were 119,250 male applications and 29,200 females.

Although the application figures still hold a significant gap, there has been a 93.51% increase in female applicants from 2011 to 2020. This is in comparison to a 14.96% increase for males during the same period. However, with 2020 still seeing four times as many male applicants as female for engineering subjects, there is still a significant disparity between the two genders.

Initiatives to address the unconscious bias which surround STEM subjects have been introduced to the media, schools and parents. These schemes often aim to persuade females into joining the industry and persuade young women that STEM subjects are relevant to them. This report by Scient Grrl suggests the existing initiatives are not effective enough as they stand since there has been a demonstrated lack of coordination between the schemes. The report suggests better cohesion between stakeholders attempting to address the problem is needed to see true change in the industry.

Applications to Computer Sciences Courses

Computer sciences has, similarly to engineering, also typically seen a wide gender gap with the number of applications they have for their courses. This is reflected in the figures, with 2020 seeing 103,630 applications from males and 21,200 female applicants. The applications from females through UCAS has in fact almost doubled from 2011, however, the applications from males also continues to rise, leaving the gap between the two genders apparent.

Applications to Law Courses

Law continues to be a popular subject to study at university, with applications from females rising by 37.93% to 92,830 between the period of 2011 and 2020. During 2020, the UCAS data shows 40,720 male applications for law courses were made, demonstrating that more than double the number of females applied than males.

According to Legal Cheek, these figures correspond to the percentage of females studying law at UK universities compared to males. The percentage of new female students was 65% in 2014 and rose to 66% in 2016. Despite these figures, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) research shows that the percentage of female partners is only about one third.

Jayne Harrison, Employment Lawyer at Richard Nelson LLP said:

“The data demonstrates how the employment landscape has changed over the past decade. We have seen a significant rise in the number of females who are interested in studying law at university and an influx of women into the workforce. During the same period, the applications for men have in fact fallen for law courses within the UK.

“It is encouraging to see the overall rise of applications for law courses from undergraduates during the last decade. Obtaining a law degree from a university in the UK can set graduates up in a strong position for their careers, as it is a field which provides students with strong communication skills, discipline and ethical awareness.”

Applications to Business and Admin Studies Courses

According to the data, business and administration remains the most popular subject group for applicants. Applications from males rose by 10.69% from 2011 to 2020, reaching 160,430 this year.

Applications to Languages Courses

Applications for languages have reduced significantly according to the UCAS data, with male applications for european languages falling by 47.36% between 2011 and 2020, and female applications falling by 41.69% in the same period.

Applications to Education Courses

There is a wide gap between the number of male and female applications for education subjects. In 2020, 9,620 male applicants were recorded compared to 58,590 females. The data also shows that the number of male applicants is in fact decreasing, with figures declining by 34.78% since 2011.

Why are we interested in UCAS applications?

Over the past few years, there have been numerous initiatives by various organisations to improve the gender split with STEM courses, as well as to drive students towards subjects which are declining in popularity. We wanted to analyse the success of these schemes and decipher how interest in each subject group has changed from 2011 to 2020 for both males and females through the years.

As experts in employment law, we were interested to find out which courses have become the most popular for undergraduate students applying through UCAS over the past decade and how this will impact the next generation of employees.

How did we collect the data?

To assess how the application rates have changed for various subject groups, we utilised UCAS data which provides the core numbers for each application deadline. We reviewed the applicant figures for each year from 2011 to 2020 to identify how the figures have changed for each course.

We pulled out the subject groups with the most significant changes and analysed these in further detail to assess where the interest of undergraduate students currently lies and how this has shifted over the last decade.

What can we learn from this university application research?

The research demonstrates that the interest in subject courses has shifted quite drastically within the last decade. The data shows subjects such as law and business continue to grow in popularity whilst those such as education, languages and creative arts have declined significantly.

The data also shows that a wide gender gap still exists in the applications for many subject courses within the UK. Although there has been an improvement for both engineering and computer sciences, these subjects still lag behind with both receiving four times as many male applicants as female. This demonstrates the work still needed in these areas to improve the gender split across these industries.

Hannah Titley, Director at The Golden Circle Tuition commented:

“Despite progress towards gender equality in the last 10 years, social norms around gender roles still pervade. Girls are told from a young age that they should be thoughtful, attractive, and altruistic. On the other hand, boys are expected to fulfil an outdated stereotype of being ‘tough’, being funny and having high-earning job prospects.

“These gender stereotypes and social expectations to conform influence student choices. Girls tend towards softer skill subjects such as English, while boys are encouraged to take hard skill/ black and white subjects like Maths and Physics. I reject the idea that females and males are naturally better in studying the Arts or Science-based subjects and the more that can be done to free girls and boys from social pressures/ subliminal messaging around the ‘right choices’ the better.

“We need to inform and inspire. Inform girls on what careers are available in Science and how these jobs are critical for finding solutions to global challenges – climate change, food security, healthcare. We also need to inspire girls by making these jobs attractive. This generation of young people is inspiring. Global problems are on their radar. We just need to push successful female scientists to the forefront – on social media, TV, Ted Talks, podcasts – to talk about their work, empower young people to get involved, and explain why their job matters.”

Jayne Harrison

Written by Jayne Harrison

Jayne joined Richard Nelson LLP in 2018 as a Partner and manages the firm's employment law services. After training at a top 100 law firm, Jayne spent the last 13 years at Chattertons and then Cleggs Solicitors. She represents employees and professionals in regulated industries.

Read more about Jayne Harrison.

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