UK Higher Education

Predicting the Future: Why HE Subject Trends Matter

University subject choice trends offer interesting clues as to how the working world is evolving in the UK. Following on from Wonkhe’s recent article on the 2018 recruitment cycle, we’ve taken a closer look at how search activity on and (PGS) – two of the UK’s largest student search sites – match up to annual applications data published by UCAS. Hotcourses Group’s real-time data coupled with historical data from UCAS offer unique insights into higher education subject trends, which in turn could provide a glimpse into what future industry may look like.

The Ups & Downs

Comparing the latest UCAS application data for the UK between the 2017 and live 2018 cycles, there has been an overall decrease in applications for the majority of subjects, including Physical sciences (-9%) and Education (-7%), the latter likely linked to changes in teacher training. Some of the subjects that saw application increases between the two cycles were Medicine & dentistry (+9%), Architecture, build & plan (+3%), Law (+4%) and Combined social sciences (+6%).

Observing Application & Search Increases

Taking a closer look, Medicine and dentistry (excluding nursing) saw a rather dramatic drop in applications between 2014 and 2015 from 76,020 to 67,480, with a steady decline up until 2017. The most recent 2018 statistics, however, show a sharp increase to 70,330. Looking at 2016 and 2017, search activity across Whatuni and PGS also shows a recent upward trend among unique users. As a category, Medicine and dentistry indicates an increase of 32.38%.

Aptly reflecting global urban expansion, UCAS data shows that demand for Architecture, build & plan has risen steadily since 2014 with applications increasing from 29,580 in 2017 to 30,370 in 2018. Search results on Whatuni and PGS also reveal increase in interest between 2016 and 2017 for Architecture and building with 17.31%.

Law has seen some telling fluctuations over the last few years. UK applications dropped from 84 000 in 2013 to 82,210 in 2014, but have since increased steadily to a significant 101,210 in 2018. Likewise, Hotcourses Group reveals a 15.09% increase in users searching Law between 2016 and 2017.

Albeit less dramatic, Combined social sciences has had an increase in applications from 20,880 in 2017 to 22,100 in 2018. Surprisingly, data provided by Hotcourses Group shows a particularly notable increase in users searching Combined social sciences between 2016 and 2017 with a 32.35% increase. This could arguably be a positive indication of things to come.

Hotcourses Group’s data corresponds to UCAS application trends, showing an increased interest in select subject searches. It is important to note that & PGS have both seen an overall increase in traffic over the last two years.

Factors that Govern Fluctuations

There are a variety of factors that govern fluctuations in HE subject applications – among many, these include changes in funding schemes, secondary school subject trends, strategic marketing, industry developments and so on. But, perhaps above all, the most pressing factor may very well be future employability. “Increased competition in the workplace and rising tuition fees have to a large extent limited freedom of subject choice,” says Jonah Duffin, CMO of Hotcourses Group. “Compared to previous generations, prospective students are much more likely to choose subjects based on their return on investment and employability.”

In a time where the spotlight is on value for money and graduate outcomes, it is vital for institutions to understand the preferences and mindsets of prospective students busy searching for courses and to monitor trends in subject applications. Not only does it allow for the development of enhanced industry partnerships, but it drives informed marketing and recruitment strategies.


Working with Hotcourses Group: Hotcourses Group produces some of the world’s largest education search websites (collectively with 69 million visits per year). By using Hotcourses Group’s real-time Insights tool, institutions are able to track millions of prospective students and their search activities based on subject choice, source and destination countries and more. In addition, the Hotcourses Group consultancy team works closely with institutions to provide needs-based data that can be used to inform marketing and recruitment strategies. Contact to find out more.

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