The Rise and Fall of Degrees in Australia

May 30, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

The world has changed a lot over the past quarter of a century. According to a recent report from The Sydney Morning Herald, the most popular university degrees have changed along with it. Which degrees have skyrocketed and which have fallen between when the Department of Education began tracking commencing enrollments in 1989 and the latest figures from 2015? Here’s a closer look, based on an analysis by Fairfax Media.

On the Rise

Five fields of study came out ahead in terms of fastest growth over the past 27 years. Now claiming 1.5 percent of the share of commencing students’ enrollment degrees with a four-fold increase, Banking and Finance ascended six places to claim the 17th place out of 26. Psychology trailed just behind with a three-fold boost bringing it to 12th from 21st in the rankings. Health and Complementary Therapies; Media/Communications, and Law finished out the top five reaching 6.1 percent, 3 percent, and 3.6 percent, respectively.

Also of note? Not only did Business Studies hold onto its spot atop the rankings for the 10th straight year, but its share of graduates also increased. A full fifth of Australian students enrolled in Business Studies in 2015, a trend which is attributed to international students.

Experts say the increase of women in universities has also changed the demographic breakdown of certain fields of studies, including PR/Marketing/Advertising, Law, Medicine and Accounting

Losing Ground

Formerly one of the country’s most popular degrees, Education fell the furthest from an all-time high of 17.5 percent in 1989 to 8.3 percent in 2015.  As Grattan Institute Higher Education Program director Andrew Norton told The Morning Herald, “Education had a big crash in the early 1990s because there was an oversupply of teachers...people realized there weren’t jobs in education and they moved elsewhere.”  Still, it’s important to note that Education remains one of Australia’s op three fields of study.

Also losing ground? Mathematics, Agriculture and Economics, each of which saw commencing enrollments drop by at least half. A less expected major which also took a tumble due to the bursting of the dot.com bubble in 2000?  Computer Science, which once accounted for 9.1 percent of commencing student enrollments but now accounts for just 4.5 percent.

In addition to obvious factors like job market demand and student demographics, Graduate Careers Australia Policy and Strategy Adviser Bruce Guthrie also pointed to the influence of “strange things” in The Morning Herald. "I remember Vet Science was strongly male in the 70s and 80s,” he said. “Then came a TV show called A Country Practice, which featured a female vet. Anecdotally, that strongly drove enrollments of women in veterinary science.”

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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