April 26, 2017

Impact of More Students at University – Part 1

As we mark the fifth anniversary of the demand driven system, the data continues to show the positive benefits of a model steered by student agency and university commitment to access.

The IRU regularly monitors data on the discipline choice of students.  We now have sufficient figures on course completions to extend the analysis. The latest data confirms that the demand driven expansion of universities places is raising the number of students studying science and technology degrees and health profession degrees at a much higher rate than the growth in business, law and arts degrees.

This has changed the balance of students by discipline (Figure One).  Graduates in Natural and Physical Sciences have increased from 10% to 12% of all graduates since 2009.  Health graduates have grown from 17% to 20%.  Education graduates have fallen to 9% from 11% over the same period. The change in the balance across disciplines has raised the apparent funding per student although the funding rates have not increased.

This growth trend is evidence of the demand driven system working effectively.  The data shows the system is not imbalanced and is not creating perverse outcomes. There is growth in STEM as a discipline choice with more students completing those degrees.

It undermines the constant assumption that demand driven funding has or will favour expansion only in low cost high charge courses such as law and business.

A leading example was Jennifer Westacott, CEO of the Business Council of Australia who argued to the Universities Australia conference (28 February 2013) that that the demand driven system, would lead universities to avoid high cost courses areas like agriculture and science.  Others have continued to be alarmist, despite the strong, consistent, contrary evidence.

Student enrolments

Against an overall 19% growth in undergraduate students from 2010 to 2015, STEM disciplines show higher than average growth (Figure Two and Figure Three) with:

  • Health enrolments increasing by 31%, or 22,000 additional enrolled students;
  • Natural and physical sciences increased from 68,000 to just under 85,000 or by 25%;
  • Engineering a 22% increase, rising to 35,000 through an extra 6,500 students; and
  • IT also shows a large increase of 4000 students to rise to19,000, a 26% increase.


Student completions show a similar pattern with a 13% increase in overall completions between 2012 and 2015 (Figure Four and Figure Five). 2012 is used as the base year, with graduates from 2013 increasingly likely to have enrolled following the announcement of demand driven funding.

  • Health graduates increased by 4,000 or 19%.
  • Natural and Physical sciences had a 22% increase, larger than any other, rising from 13,200 completions to over 16,000.
  • Engineering had a 12% increase, or 800 additional students completing degrees.
  • Information Technology went from 3,000 completions to just over 3,500, an increase of 16%.

By contrast, the courses where the previous funding system encouraged additional enrolments the growth, since demand driven funding was introduced, is modest.

  • Society and Culture (Including Law) had a 9% increase in student completions.
  • Management and Commerce had a low rate of 6% additional completions.

The change is easing, now that the backlog of interest has been met, with growth in 2014 and 2015 more even across disciplines.

Overall, the enrolment and completion data suggest that the demand driven approach has worked well to support student interest across all discipline areas.  This is important since we need Australians to follow their aspirations and graduate across all disciplines to be ready for the challenges ahead.

All data available from pdf aside.