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On the map - Degree subjects - Wealth of nations is in the mix

Proportion of students choosing degrees in humanities, arts and education (HAE) compared with engineering, manufacturing and construction (EMC)*

Proportion of students choosing degrees in humanities, arts and education (HAE) compared with engineering, manufacturing and construction (EMC)*

Do we need more people studying engineering, manufacturing and construction (EMC) subjects at university? Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that in the UK the proportion of those entering higher education in these subjects - 8 per cent - is less than a third of those starting courses in the humanities, arts and education (HAE), at 26 per cent. Only New Zealand, with 7 per cent, has a lower percentage entering tertiary education to study EMC subjects among the countries on our map. By contrast, about a quarter of those going to university in Finland and South Korea are taking EMC subjects. Interestingly, South Korea also has a high percentage studying humanities, arts and education.

The argument has always been that the EMC area contains key wealth-generating subjects and a good flow of graduates into those fields is important to the economy. This presumably works in Finland, where shipbuilding and the Nokia mobile phone company are both important contributors to the economy. However, new technology has brought about a change in the mix of skills possessed by new graduates, so perhaps a broader outlook is necessary. For instance, the music industry is a key export earner for the UK economy, so perhaps we need to ensure that successful artists can be supported by trained sound engineers, marketing, and business-orientated individuals drawn from a range of subjects, including EMC, HAE and others.

It seems that there are a few countries with low percentages entering EMC but high HAE percentages; a large number of countries where the EMC percentages are in the teens and HAE percentages somewhat higher; and Finland and South Korea with very high EMC percentages and mixed levels of HAE entrants. In the end, what matters for a country is whether its mix of graduates can produce sufficient wealth to support the needs of the country.

John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education.

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