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Factors influencing young people's STEM subject choice for Higher Education

Results from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England

The Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE) provides: “evidence about the transitions young people make from secondary and tertiary education or training to economic roles in early adulthood” (NatCen, 2010). It is a representative survey and provides data about the subject areas chosen by young people aged 18/19 in England in 2009, together with information about these young people’s views and attitudes to school and their future careers from the age of 13/14.

Using data from this study, factors associated with young people’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subject choices for higher education were investigated. In particular, agency-related factors, such as subject choices at school and career decision-making for higher education were examined. From these data, individual preferences and attitudes emerge as important, alongside structural factors. Findings from this longitudinal study support and extend findings from other relevant research.

informationThe full report produced by the Institute for Employment Research can be downloaded here.

Summary of findings

Data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England were analysed to investigate what factors influence whether young people study a STEM subject at higher education

A number of factors were found to be associated with the subject area studied at higher education at age 18/19. Factors that were explored included: gender; ethnicity; whether a STEM subject at school was favourite or not; whether a specific subject at school was liked or not; belief that a STEM degree meant better pay or working longer hours; belief that a STEM degree is in demand or required for chosen for a particular career path; and the main reasons for going to university.

Overall, the results indicate that a range of factors are important to understanding young people’s choices of subject area at higher education. Important factors are:

Gender

  • 47.5% of men from the sample were studying a STEM subject, compared to 34.3% of women.

Ethnic origin

  • 39% of White young people entered a STEM subject are at higher education, compared to 43.1% of Mixed race and 41.4% of Indian ethnic origin.

Perceptions and attitudes

  • Young people who said that a STEM subject was their favourite subject at school were more likely to study a STEM subject area in higher education: 55.4% compared to 34.9%. This relationship is true for young people’s preferences expressed at age 13/14 and 14/15.
  • Unsurprisingly, there was a negative association between disliking STEM subjects and entering a STEM subject area at higher education. Young people who said that a STEM subject was their least favourite subject at school and who then went on to study a STEM subject area in higher education was 27.9%.
  • Young people who liked science and maths at age 13/14 were more likely to study a STEM subject area at higher education than those who said that they did not like these subjects.
  • Young people who said that they liked English at age 13/14 were proportionately less likely to study a STEM subject area at higher education.

Belief in ability at maths, science and English

  • Young people who believed they were good at science and maths at age 13/14 were more likely to be studying a STEM subject at age 18/19.

Attitudes toward STEM

  • Young people who agreed (at age 16/17) that ‘people with maths and science degrees get better paid jobs’ were more likely to be studying for a STEM-related subject in higher education; 46.5% were studying a STEM subject area compared to 35.5% of those who disagreed.
  • Young people who believed that those maths or science degrees are in demand were more likely to enter a STEM subject at higher education.

Reasons for young persons’ choices

  • Young people who said that going to university was essential for their career were more likely to study a STEM subject.

Other significant factors influencing STEM choices

  • The most significant factor associated with studying a STEM subject at higher education was having this as a ‘favourite subject’ at school.
  • Having a career plan was the second most relevant factor for STEM subject choice.