A Look at IT and Engineering Enrolments in Australia

Digital technologies are becoming increasingly pervasive and many careers today involve some aspect of technology – from medicine, business, education, fashion, economics and many others. Simply viewing the Careers with Code guide, one can see the vast variety and applications of Computing and Engineering-related careers, as well as the application of coding across a number of disciplines. Digital technologies and associated industries represent 16% of the Australian GDP and are recognised as being one of the fastest growing industries today. However, it is common knowledge that Higher Education struggles to attract students to consider computing pathways.

What are the statistics for Australian enrolments in Computing and Engineering courses? Have there been any changes in enrolments over time?

I was curious to learn about the state of the field. With thanks to suggestions from my education/research community online, I used open source Government data* (uCube) about Higher Education enrolments to explore Computing (IT) and Engineering (and related technologies) enrolments over time. The current dataset ranges from 2001 to 2013. In this blog post, I share some preliminary findings.

Firstly, I wanted to explore Computing and Engineering enrolments in comparison to other discipline areas. The graph below presents all Australian Higher Education enrolments across a number of key fields for (both international and domestic students) from 2001 to 2013. The graph reveals that early Computing (Information Technology) enrolments from 2001-2004 were around 7,000, however since, enrolments have dropped and tapered off to be around 5,000 enrolments. Since 2001, enrolments in Engineering (and related technologies) has seen a slow but steady rise. However, both still stand in stark contrast to a number of other discipline areas, with Management and Commerce, Society and Culture and Health having high and increasing enrolments.

All courses enrolments

Author: Dr Rebecca Vivian, CSER Group. Data source: http://highereducationstatistics.education.gov.au

While we know that enrolments in Computing courses are low for all students, we know that females are significantly underrepresented in the technology field. Therefore, my next interest was to explore female enrolments and their changes over time.

Dr Randy Olsen has previously looked at US female enrolments in Computer Science in comparison to other bachelor degrees. What Randy came to conclude was that, in the US, it appears there isn’t a STEM gender-gap but rather an “ET” (Engineering and Technology) gender gap. In his graph (below) we see quite a low enrolment of females in Computer Science and Engineering. So, how do female enrolments in Australia compare?

Author: Dr Randy Olson, www.randalolson.com

An examination of the Australian Government Higher Education data for both international and domestic students reveals that female enrolments in both Computing (IT) and Engineering (and related technologies) has remained relatively low in comparison to male enrolments from 2001 to 2013. In the graph below, you can see that female enrolments in Computing courses has dropped around 10,000 enrolments from 2002 to 2006 and has since remained relatively the same. Engineering on the other hand, have seen female enrolments surpass IT enrolments over the years. What has noticeably changed has been male enrolments in Engineering courses. There has been an upward trend since 2006 from just under 60,000 enrolments to just over 80,000 enrolments in 2013.

Male and Female enrolments ENG and IT

Author: Dr Rebecca Vivian, CSER Group. Data source: http://highereducationstatistics.education.gov.au

In both previous graphs domestic and international students have been combined. What do enrolments look like when we compare domestic and international females in Computing and Engineering? Below, is a graph displaying the enrolments for both domestic and international female students for both discipline areas. This is based on students who have identified as being either “domestic” or “international” (unidentified data is not included). Interestingly, we can see that domestic female enrolments in Computing have declined over the years, with an increase in domestic females enrolling in Engineering (and related technologies) courses.

Females domestic and overseas

Author: Dr Rebecca Vivian, CSER Group. Data source: http://highereducationstatistics.education.gov.au

This is just a preliminary exploration of one data source. Here at the CSER group, although we were disappointed not to see an upward trend in recent years, we remain optimistic that data from 2014 onward will increase in both male and female enrolments in Computing courses across Australia!

So, how can we improve enrolments in Computing courses to ensure that we have enough graduates to produce technological solutions to contribute to global and local challenges and fill the growing availability of digital careers? 

As we see K-12 Computing introduced into pre-tertiary contexts, research in this space will only continue to develop. However, so far, researchers have demonstrated that STEM gender gap interventions are best served by designing educational environments that will engage children in STEM-relevant activities, from the very early years of school. Engaging children early is imperative to ensure underrepresented groups, such as females, do not disengage early. Some global and Australian initiatives that aim to increase youth awareness and engagement in Computing include the Hour of Code by Code.org; the Made With Code initiative for young females; and Code Club opportunities, such as those offered by Code Clubs and Google’s CS First Club. There have also been international and national competitions, such as the First Lego League Challenge and the Young ICT Explorers.

We have also seen a global movement to include Computing curricula in pre-tertiary schooling contexts. Countries such as Finland, England and New Zealand have implemented or are in the process of implementing formal Computing curricula. In Australia, we have seen our very own Australian Curriculum: Technologies that has been released online as ready for use in classrooms, along with the Australian Government’s announcement of a 12 million dollar investment to restore STEM in schools with computational thinking and coding across the curriculum.

Further, a number of teachers across Australia have enthusiastically embraced Technologies education, with a number integrating coding and Computational Thinking into their classroom (see “ozcschat” or the CSER MOOC Google+ communities). Moreover, “Makerspaces” have recently exploded with many schools and local communities embracing this open and creative learning approach, where children become “makers” and combine their passions and interests with STEM to develop solutions using a range of technologies and other materials.

Will these initiatives impact on future Australian enrolments in Computing courses, and in particular female enrolments? We will have to wait and see! Let’s hope that we see some positive changes in future enrolment statistics as this awareness continues to grow!

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*Notes about the Australian Data:

  1. Source: Department of Education and Training – Higher Education Statistics Data Cube (uCube) which is based on the student and staff data collections.
  2. The data cube allows customised tables to be produced with cells containing very small counts. Therefore, to avoid any risk of disseminating identifiable data, a disclosure control technique called input perturbation has been applied to the data, whereby small random adjustments are made to cell counts. These adjustments (otherwise known as noise) allow for a greater amount of detailed data to be released, and, as they are small, do not impair the utility of the tabular data at broad levels. The relative impact of perturbation is larger for small cell counts, which therefore should be used with caution.
  3. For Field of Education: The data takes into account the coding of Combined Courses to two fields of education. As a consequence, counting both fields of education for Combined Courses means that the totals may be less than the sum of all broad fields of education.
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