Tag Archives: statistics

Using UCAS data to identify language trends 1

Late last year I wrote about the difficulties involved in calculating how many students are studying languages, by using HESA data. An alternative source of data is from the UK’s University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). One of the great advantages of the UK centralised admissions system it does mean access to some good data. It is possible to find out which courses are in the highest demand (by looking at application to accept ratios), details about the socio-economic profile of students, school grades etc. Arguably, UCAS data is presented is much more user friendly way than HESA data.

Caution about UCAS data

The case may be different for other subjects, but UCAS data is not very reliable for tracking trends in individual languages. The subject data presented by UCAS is based upon an applicant’s primary choice—in short UCAS staff look at an application form to see which subject the applicant is primarily applying which then forms the basis of the subject choice

Despite the clarity of the layout, there are at least two reasons why UCAS data is not particularly reliable for mapping trends in individual languages.

  1. There is very little allowance for joint and combined honours combinations to be recorded. Where they are reported, it will be where the applicant has expressed no clear preference for a subject—these students are recorded in Y Combinations of Languages with arts and humanities, social studies, combinations of languages. We do not know what combinations they are actually doing. Unspecified combinations of languages attracted 9,589 application and 1,652 accepts. Add to this the combinations of languages with arts/ humanities (another 7,623), languages with social studies, business and law another 2,589. This is considerably more than the 4,678 studying European languages (Group R) and the non-European languages and languages (1,485).
  2. For individual languages ‘trends’ are extremely volatile, probably not because demand is volatile, but because classification practices vary year on year. This is especially the case of ‘less widely taught languages’. Taken at face value it seems that only two students applied to study Portuguese last year.

The upside

However, as each individual is only counted once we can work out how many people might be studying for a language degree in higher education whihout worry are tenths, third and halves of students. If we add up the Group R total, the Group T totals and the Y language combinations for 2010 we get 18,027. Multiple that by 4 (assuming all these students are doing 4 year courses) and we get 72,108. This may be an underestimate as I have not included the sciences with languages/ arts and humanities, but it could also be an overestimated as I this 72,000+ assumes four-year degrees, so if I was to multiple by 3 we get 54,081 not especially close to the 42,444 I estimated from the HESA data.

UCAS is about admissions and applications to study, not statistics per se. It tells us nothing of the numbers of students who enrol on language courses in Institution-Wide Language programmes or change to (or from languages on arrival), though some of the these students are recorded in the HESA data (it depends though on how institutions report their data to HESA.

The data on which this post is based is on the UCAS website. I will post the past five years of data from the individual languages in the next day or two.

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What is a 'course' in higher education? It depends who you ask.

HESA has published an interesting document on the definition of the word ‘course’. The report outlines the differing definitions of ‘course’ used by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and other players in higher education. As I noted in my previous posts, this poses many difficulties for those us seeking the answer to the basic question—how many people are studying ‘X’?

Only last week the Times Higher Education ran an article under the headline ‘1 in 4 new undergraduate courses fails to attract any students’. However, the truth here is that courses are certain combinations of modules and subjects, not distinct entities. A university can offer a ‘course’ in Criminology, Accountancy and Canadian Studies on the grounds that it is a feasible combination in terms of the timetable. The question of whether or not students choose this ‘course’ is a different one to the question of whether programmes in Criminology, Accountancy or Canadian Studies departments and courses are viable.

In May this year, it was reported that London Metropolitan University was cutting 400 courses. Whilst it should be acknowledged that departments and jobs have been threatened at the institution, it is quite a different issue to the question of the number of subjects on offer and the number of staff there will be to teach them.

Interestingly, the collection of data for the Key Information Set (KIS) could lead to the end of certain offerings – not because they are bad courses, are expensive to run or even that they have low numbers of students – but because of the extpense of reporting on each combination. It appears that each ‘course’ will require its own KIS (which will report on employability, salary outcomes etc. ). So a BA (Hons) ‘course’ in Criminology, Accountancy and Canadian Studies would require its own KIS which would be different than those for each of those subjects as a single honours subject or in combination with other subjects. If this is indeed the case then Malcolm Gilles, quoted in the THE sums up the situation poignantly:

…the new student information requirements would also have an impact on decisions about which courses to keep. Why keep running courses that don't attract many students, especially now that you will have the cost of producing a Key Information Set for every course you offer? If you have only one student or even zero enrolment, [how will you record employability] for that course in the KIS? Such requirements would force universities to weed those courses out.

Could an unintended consequence of the KIS the death of joint and combined degrees or at least the end of ‘non-cognate’ combinations? Working in languages where joint and combined courses are particularly common this could become a new threat to the subject.

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Top 20 joint degree combinations taken by language undergraduates in the UK

Top 20 combinations (Source: HESA 2009/10).

Programme                                                 Number of students

1                French and Spanish                                                     2681

2                French and German                                                     1750

3                French and English                                                      998

4                *American Studies and English                            850

5                French and Italian                                                      785

6                French and Business Studies                                  662

7                Spanish and Business Studies                                  623

8                French and Law                                                            572

9                French and Politics                                                   554

10              Spanish and English                                                 520

11              Italian and Spanish                                                   453

12              Spanish and Politics                                             452

13              Portuguese and Spanish                                    382

14              German and Business Studies                         333

15              Other European Languages and Business Studies  326

16              German and Spanish                                      312

17              French and Russian                                      274

18              German and English                                     261

19              French and Linguistics                               238

20              Management and French                       229


*American Studies will include some students studying Latin American Studies as well as US studies. If you wish to exclude this then Russian and Politics comes in 20th place with 212 students.

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How many people are studying for a languages degree in higher education? Why it is hard to know.

How many people are studying for a degree languages in higher education? Does it really matter? Of course it matters a great deal to people who work in language departments. It also matters a great deal if we are to increase the number of students choosing to study languages at university.

Usually, when we talk about numbers studying each language we are presented with a table like the below. This tells us how many students are studying each language/ area study. These are the HESA stats for 2009/10:

Table 1

(R1) French studies Total                                                           14643

(R2) German studies Total                                                         5247

(R3) Italian studies Total                                                             2386

(R4) Spanish studies Total                                                         9961

(R5) Portuguese studies Total                                                    592

(R6) Scandinavian studies Total                                                98

(R7) Russian & East European studies Total                             1829

(R8) European Studies Total                                                      1538

(R9) Others in European languages, lit & related subjects        7816

(T1) Chinese studies Total                                                         1374

(T2) Japanese studies Total                                                       1253

(T3) South Asian studies Total                                                   223

(T4) Other Asian studies Total                                                   407

(T5) African studies Total                                                           235

(T6) Modern Middle Eastern studies Total                                 1224

(T7) American studies Total                                                       3763

(T8) Australasian studies Total                                                 21

(T9) Others in Eastern, Asiatic, African, American & Australasian lang, lit & related subs Total  259

TOTAL                                                                                        52,869


Table 1 tells us the number of the individual language learning experiences. However, this does not tell us how much of the language each student is studying.

  1. Table 1 does not tell us how many of the students are studying single honours French (100%) and how many are doing the language for 75%, 50%, 33% or 10% of their time. All other things being equal (though they rarely are) and assuming a direct relationship between student numbers and departmental income a student who studies a language 100% of the time will bring in three times as much funding a student who studies a language for 33.33% and ten times as much as a student who is studying a language for 10%.
  2. Moreover it does not tell us how many students are studying languages as those studying two languages will be counted twice and those studying three languages three times.

Table 2

(R1) French studies Total                                         7410.44

(R2) German studies Total                                       2092.43

(R3) Italian studies Total                                           1296.93

(R4) Spanish studies Total                                        2593.59

(R5) Portuguese studies Total                                  280.67

(R6) Scandinavian studies Total                               73.16

(R7) Russian & East European studies Total           981.18

(R8) European Studies Total                                    1390.17

(R9) Others in European languages, literature & rel 6288.31

(T1) Chinese studies Total                                        901.42

(T2) Japanese studies Total                                     914.03

(T3) South Asian studies Total                                  163.43

(T4) Other Asian studies Total                                  221.94

(T5) African studies Total                                         154.5

(T6) Modern Middle Eastern studies Total               834.75

(T7) American studies Total                                     2551.84

(T8) Australasian studies Total                                7

(T9) Others in Eastern, Asiatic, African, American & Australasian languages, literature & related subjects Total                                                                                  194.67

TOTAL (all languages)                                                28350.46


Table 2 can deal with the how much point (I’ll provide more detail at a later date). It shows us the number of Full Person Equivalent (FPE) students. HESA collects data on the percentage of their time spent studying the language. This might be as little as 10% or as much as 100%. Therefore the Full Person Equivalent of people studying languages is 28,230. That is the figure I came to whilst adding all the wholes, halves, this, quarters and tenths.

Returning to point 2 above, some students are studying two or three languages. Therefore the total number of ‘language learning experiences’ exceeds the number of actual students studying languages. If we take away the number of students studying two or more languages our number of individual students studying languages in some way drops from 52,869 individual learning experiences to 42,444 individuals.

So there are 42,444 studying languages in higher education?

No, there are several reasons why this figure is likely to be a severe underestimate.

  1. Data from London Metropolitan University, Liverpool Hope University, and University College Birmingham are excluded. That would add a few more.
  2. Reporting data to HESA is the responsibility of individual institutions. They may report up to three subjects, but that is not to say that they do. Some institutions will report a student studying a language for 10% of their time, but others may not. These figures will include some of the 60,000 ‘non-specialist’ students reported to be undertaking some sort of language study, but not all of them (CILT, the National Centre for Languages (2009) HE students of other disciplines studying   Available from:  http://bit.ly/bw1AT3.
  3. We do know that the category (R9) “Others in European languages, literature & related subjects” is overused as institutions report all their language students in this category. In Table 1 this means that a student who is studying French and German will be reported as having two language learning experiences if they are reported for French AND German, but just one language learning experience if  they are reported under ‘Others’ (R9).
  4. Similarly some languages do not have their own category. Is a student reported as studying ‘Middle East Studies’ studying Arabic, Persian, both or neither?
  5. These figures are for students of first degrees and will not include Continuing Education students or other students on non-accredited courses run by universities. I will take a look at these figures at a later date.

This has been a longer post that I intended. Whatever we make of the figures of, it is useful to think about what we want the data for.  Whatever our interests and motives we will never truly be able to answer the question “How many students are studying languages in higher education?” with any degree of certainty.

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Discard the irrelevant: Statistics don’t bleed, but our students do.

I have written an new article for the LLAS blog (in a personal capacity).


Some rise by sin and others by virtue fall. William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Statistics are everywhere in education. We have the National Student Survey (NSS), the First Destinations Survey, newspaper league tables, and the Times World University rankings among others. Universities are now required to publish ‘Key Information Sets’ (KIS) from 2012. The KIS has data from the NSS (the higher the agreeing percentages the better), the cost of university accommodation (presumably the lower the better), fees (the lower the better), graduate employment rates (the higher the better), percentage of assessment which is written exams (depends on the student) and number of ‘contact’ hours (again, depends on the student). In short if it can be measured the data is out there. And if it can’t be measured, we’ll find a way to measure it anyway, (research impact anyone?). Add to all this the information that students get from visit days, Facebook, twitter, the online student forums, friends and the phrase ‘information overload’ comes to mind. In his report Dimensions of Quality Graham Gibbs warns us about that immeasurable factor, reputation, which can override any real measure of quality. I suspect that all this information only serves to make reputation all the more important.

Read the full article on the  LLAS news blog

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