Graduate students outside of University - declining degrees
Graduate students outside of University - declining degrees

Degrees In Decline: The Changing Landscape of Student Aspirations

Is the social and economic standing of the country to blame for declining degrees and alternative career paths?

Long gone are the days when degrees were mostly in areas like Philosophy, Latin, and Theology; with only men being able to study. 

Enter the new age where you can nab a degree in Parapsychology (paranormal studies) or even Viticulture and Oenology (wine making), and of course, women are hitting the books nowadays, too.

However, are too many niches and too much choice a bad thing? Our Student Bean User Research team surveyed over 1,800 UK students on the topic of degree choices. Students were asked “How did you feel about the study choices available to you when choosing your degree?”.

Out of the 1,820 responses:

  • 71.5% said “I felt like there was a good range of courses available to me”
  • 16.2% said “I felt indifferent about the courses available”
  • 12.3% said “I felt limited by the courses available to me”

It’s not clear why or how the 12.3% of students felt limited, but it may be down to the career scene changing, mixed with an increase in the cost of living, that may cause some anxiety surrounding career prospects and life after graduation. 

As the job market is constantly updating, new roles are cropping up to fit the changes in society and the needs of businesses. Many jobs are also rejecting the need for a degree as a requirement — great news for some, but for people currently studying or have already graduated with a degree, does this make them less appealing to employers? 

Do degrees hold value anymore, or are they leaving students feeling underprepared for working life outside of university?

We’ll dive into the most and least popular degrees, as well as taking a look at the motivations behind students’ degree choices.

In this article:

The most & least popular degrees

Using data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), we compared degree choices from academic years 2016/17 and 2021/22 to see which are the most popular and which may be dying out.

The tables below show the most and least popular degrees from 2016/17 and 2021/22, using the total number of applicants. Later on, we’ll dive into the numbers and find out the most and least popular degrees for female and male students.

Most popular degrees 2016/17

Degree subjectNumber of applicants in total
Business & administrative studies220, 035
Biological sciences178, 185
Subjects allied to medicine168, 950
Social studies159, 800
Creative arts & design144, 915
Most popular degrees 2016/17 table

Most popular degrees 2021/22

Degree subjectNumber of applicantsDifference since 2016/17
Business & management530, 460+ 141%
Subjects allied to medicine366, 210+ 117%
Social studies286, 890+ 79%
Design, & creative & performing arts189, 890+ 31%
Engineering & technology185, 725+ 61%
Most popular degrees 2021/22 table

Business degrees remain the most popular since 2016/17. It’s likely due to the increase in content creators, influencers, and young entrepreneurs over the past few years, encouraging students to go after their own ideas and aspirations.

Research from Santander in 2020 revealed that over 480,000 students were currently running, or planning to run a business whilst at university. Almost one in five also planned to turn their business into a full-time career when they graduate. 

The popularity of business courses may also be down to the cost of living. Students may be struggling financially and turn to side hustles to earn some more cash, with some turning these hustles into full-blown businesses.

Least popular degrees 2016/17

Degree subjectNumber of applicants
Veterinary Science5, 460
Agriculture & related subjects9, 240
Combined studies20, 650
Architecture, building & planning31, 000
Mathematical sciences36, 590
Least popular degrees 2016/17 table

Least popular degrees 2021/22

Degree subjectNumber of applicantsDifference since 2016/17
Veterinary sciences12, 145+ 122%
Social sciences12, 225n/a
Agriculture, food & related studies19, 660+ 113%
Natural sciences33, 220n/a
Mathematical sciences47, 145+ 29%
Least popular degrees 2021/22 table

Veterinary Science has consistently been the least popular degree choice for students, even with an increase of 122% since 2016/17. Veterinary Science tends to be a five to six year course at university, with fairly high entry requirements (AAA-ABB typically needed at A Level). These factors may contribute to the low number of applicants for the course. 

It’s also said that being a vet is a very high-pressure and low-reward environment (lower salaries than other medical professions), and competitive. It also requires students to be able to handle emotional circumstances which is easier said than done. The extreme commitment required for the job may be off-putting for students, resulting in fewer applicants.

Female students

The choice of degree amongst female students has not changed much over the last few years, with the favourites staying fairly consistent over the years.

The tables below show the top 5 degree choices for female students from 2016/17 to 2021/22. 

Females most popular degrees 2016/17

Degree subjectNumber of applicants
Subjects allied to medicine136, 215
Business and administrative subjects113, 270
Biological sciences111, 945
Social studies99, 895
Creative arts and design97, 470
Females popular degrees 2016/17 table

Females most popular degrees 2021/22

Degree subjectNumber of applicants Difference since 2016/17
Subjects allied to medicine291, 555+ 114%
Business and administrative subjects249, 135+ 120%
Social studies190, 485+ 91%
Creative arts and design121, 205+ 24%
Psychology114, 000n/a
Females most popular degrees 2021/22 table

The number of enrolled female students for Social Studies has increased by 91% and has knocked Biological Sciences out of third place to just outside the top 5, with a decrease of 48% in enrolment compared to 2016/17. 

Interestingly, Psychology has made it into the top 5, beating Biological Sciences and has steadily increased in popularity over the past few years. This popularity for the subject may be due to the transferable skills it teaches, enabling students to be equipped with the skills needed for most jobs.

Females least popular degrees 2016/17

Degree subjectNumber of applicants
Veterinary science4, 345
Agriculture and related subjects6, 470
Architecture, building and planning11, 460
Computer science12, 115
Mathematical sciences13, 700
Females least popular degrees 2016/17 table

Females least popular degrees 2021/22

Degree subjectNumber of applicantsDifference since 2016/17
Geography, Earth and environmental studies7, 010n/a
Veterinary science10, 035+ 131%
Agriculture and related subjects12, 575+ 94%
Mathematical sciences17, 435+ 27%
Natural sciences17, 635n/a
Females least popular degrees 2021/22 table

Since 2016/17, the least popular degrees among female students have stayed mostly the same. Veterinary science, whilst facing a huge increase of 131% in 2021/22, is still one of the least popular choices with female students.

It’s also interesting to see Geography, Earth and Environmental studies being the least popular, even with the increasing concern around climate change and sustainability.

Male students

Looking into the top degree choices for males in the academic year 2016/17, you’ll notice overlaps in some of the choices between male and female students.

Males most popular degrees 2016/17

Degree subjectNumber of applicants
Business and administrative studies119, 515
Engineering and technology97, 205
Computer science67, 885
Biological sciences66, 720
Social studies60, 965
Males most popular degrees 2016/17 table

Business and administrative studies were top choices for male and female students, as were Biological sciences and social studies.

Males most popular degrees 2021/22

Degree subjectNumber of applicantsDifference since 2016/17
Business and administrative studies280, 875+ 135%
Engineering and technology147, 455+ 52%
Computer science126, 465+ 86%
Social studies95, 140+ 56%
Subjects allied to medicine74, 125n/a
Males most popular degrees 2021/22 table

The top 3 degree choices for male students have been the same since 2016/17, with Business and administrative studies leading the tables. Biological sciences is no longer in the top 5, with subjects allied to medicine moving up into 5th most popular degree choice.

This increase in interest for medical subjects may be as a result of the pandemic in 2020. According to a survey by Prospects, 27% of students had changed their career plans due to the pandemic for a variety of reasons. Some of those who changed their plans had been inspired by people actively involved in supporting the pandemic response, like those in hospitals and care sectors.

Males least popular degrees 2016/17

Degree subjectNumber of applicants
Veterinary science1, 110
Agriculture and related subjects2, 770
Education7, 710
Mass communications and documentation16, 945
Medicine and dentistry19, 565
Males least popular degrees 2016/17 table

Males least popular degrees 2021/22

Degree subjectNumber of applicantsDifference since 2016/17
Veterinary science2, 070+ 86%
Geography, Earth and Environmental studies5, 185n/a
Agriculture and related subjects7, 035+ 154%
Natural sciences15, 500n/a
Combined and general studies18, 045n/a
Males least popular degrees 2021/22 table

Veterinary science has been the least popular choice of degree for male students across the years. There isn’t a lot of concrete research into why male students aren’t choosing to become vets, but it may be down to societal roles and pressures, and not wanting to be in a female-dominated industry (even though Veterinary science is also in the top 5 least popular degrees for female students).

When we analysed the data from the survey, we found that more female students felt limited by the courses available to them. Only 2% of the male respondents felt limited by the courses available to them, compared to 10% of the female respondents.

The least popular degrees may also be bottom of the barrel due to the number of exams the course might have. According to our own student survey, 62% of students find exams so stressful to the point of impacting their wellbeing and performance. 51% of students also stated that the number of exams included in their degree impacts their choice.

Science-based subjects and Veterinary Science typically involve quite a few exams, which may be the reason students are put off from studying them.

Motivations behind degree choices

There are many different reasons someone might choose a degree to study.

It may be a subject that the individual is really interested in, or maybe it’s their favourite or best subject at school. They may also make their choice depending on the career path they may want to take after graduation.

In our Student Beans survey, students were asked “what is the biggest reason why you chose your degree and why?”.

  • 14% cited the reason for their degree choice was that it was their “passion or dream”.
  • 3% said the reason was “money”.
  • 37% said it was their choice because it was their “hobby or interest”.
  • 42% cited the reason was for their “career, future, or opportunity”.
  • Around 1% said their choice was down to wanting to “leave their home/town”.
  • 3% chose their degree for “self improvement/for themselves”.

While it looks like the majority of students are following their career aspirations and interests, another study revealed that 44% of graduates regret their field of study. The drop-out rates are also at an all time high, with 40,000 undergraduate students withdrawing from their courses.

Ed Fidoe, the Founder and CEO of the London Interdisciplinary School, shares that “Gen Z want an education that prepares them for the future, not one that’s stuck in the past. But here’s the problem: 37% of graduates say their education didn’t prepare them to solve the problems they encounter in their careers.” This lack of preparation could be due to outdated degree curriculum that just doesn’t tackle any of the skills needed in the current working world.

To find out which jobs have the best salaries, check out the highest paying degrees and jobs in the UK.

Cost of living & the pandemic

While the pandemic is almost a distant memory, its effect on the working world can still be seen, and throw the cost of living crisis into the mix too, and you’ve got some chaos uncertainty.

In Prospects’ survey of over 6,500 students and graduates about career decisions, 37% said they were uncertain about what they will do. Even though some students stated they had been inspired by those helping during the pandemic, others wanted to escape industries like hospitality or travel, which struggled during that time. Some of the respondents even said they were looking at apprenticeships so they can start to earn some money, as an alternative to study.

Another study by The Student Room, showed that 92% of students were concerned about the rising cost of living, and 43% were worried if they could afford to go to university at all. On top of that, 12% of respondents said their parents had encouraged them to defer or to not go to university.

What was once considered the ultimate pathway to success after school, university is becoming less attractive with apprenticeships being deemed more appealing due to the chance of earning while learning. Since 2018/19, apprenticeships have grown by 47% — could this be because of low confidence in employment after graduation?

It’s no surprise that students are opting for alternatives to university. With the uncertainty of another pandemic or financial troubles, people are looking for better or easier ways to get straight into earning. This is further supported by Cibyl’s cost of student living research, when asked “what do students want to do after university?” 74% said ‘work’ compared to only 9% opting for postgrad studies.

Do universities need to re-evaluate what they offer? 100%. Giving students transferable skills and the confidence to enter employment after they graduate can help reduce the drop-out rates and encourage students to pursue their own career aspirations.

Not going to university? Check out the highest paying UK jobs you can get without a degree.


  • Our Student Bean research team surveyed 1,820 UK students on how they felt about their study choices and why. 
  • We analysed and compared two sets of data from HESA to find the most and least popular degree choices from the academic years 2016/17 and 2021/22, working out the percentage increase/decrease.

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