Undue Influence?

If the newspapers are to be believed – and that’s a big if – then television has an awful lot to answer for when it comes to which university courses are over-subscribed. In quick succession last week, stories were run in the Independent claiming that the sudden increase in UCAS applications for midwifery courses was down to the BBC Series ‘Call the Midwife’, and in the Telegraph the story ran that the rise in physics applications was down to Brian Cox.  Of course this latter ‘story’ is not new (it’s been running since 2010 at least), but the specific point made this time around was that Manchester applications in particular had gone through the roof, so that the standard offer from the university was now 2  A*’s and an A – higher than the usual Oxbridge requirement. The stories were of course thin on actual hard evidence (as opposed to a few, possibly relevant numbers scattered around) and certainly should be treated with the customary caution, that correlation is not causation.

These stories are in the same vein as the one a number of years ago which said that Silent Witness, back then starring Amanda Burton, had sparked an increase in the number of applications for Forensic Science courses.  These days, following the much publicised closure of the Forensic Science Service, it seems improbable that the long-running programme continues to provoke such enthusiasm for a degree in the subject. Or maybe it’s simply that the novelty value has faded. But it is worth asking whether TV really does provoke waves of fashion in the student population or even, though I’ve not come across explicit stories to this effect, possibly aversion if a programme represents some field too negatively.  If it does have such influence, is this a force for good? However, it seems to me that there are additionally a whole slew of different factors that could be coming into play here, ones that the newspapers simply don’t touch upon.

Relevant factors could include one or more of the following:

  • Midwifery and physical sciences both may appeal to the student of today who faces the fee-payback of tomorrow.  In other words, when financial worries loom large, both physics and midwifery may look like good bets compared with, say, psychology or media studies, about which much has been written (certainly as regards their value and level of difficulty as A level subjects). If these latter subjects are seen as not going to provide a high probability of employment or satisfactory salaries, then maybe people are opting for courses that appear to offer better security.
  • For students who lack decent careers’ advice, as most will due to the winding down of the ability of schools to offer face-to-face provision, then information gleaned from the television may be seized upon as offering insight unobtainable during the normal school day. So perhaps TV should now be seen as filling a gap in information services for 16 year olds, thereby suggesting interesting alternatives for those who have discovered they probably do not have what it takes to sign for a top-flight football team or modelling agency (according to taste), the frequent aspiration of early teen years.
  • In the case of physics, the year-on-year increase in university applications almost certainly started before the ‘Brian Cox effect’ could have kicked in. His first major series, Wonders of the Solar System, was shown in 2010. Numbers of students applying to do physics courses have been going up since about 2007. Manchester may of course now be a particular attraction because that is his own university; but it is also the home of the most recent UK Nobel Prize winners in Physics Andrei Geim and Konstantin  Novoselov for the discovery of graphene. Graphene, and its home in Manchester, is probably in the science news almost as much as Cox, since large dollops of money keep being pointed in Manchester’s direction, so who is to say the attraction of Manchester  physics doesn’t have other roots beyond Brian Cox?

We have, of course, no evidence to help decode any correlation that currently appears to exist. Furthermore, it has been suggested that Cox’s appeal is only for the boys and that his programmes are subtly gendered in the way they are filmed and the framing of the stories.  Although that may be true, the number of girls proceeding to physics degrees, paltry though it is at only about 25% of total applications, has been rising too. Indeed, to counter that argument, using that well known source of fact the Daily Mail, we see that it proclaims that Cox is a sex symbol, which might well counter any negative effects of the actual style of programmes he is presenting. It is undoubtedly the case that the smiling face of Brian Cox, even better when alongside Dara Ó Briain, is seen to sell newspapers, so stories about what he may or may not have achieved are clearly worth publishing from the editor’s point of view. However, we really must take them with a pinch of salt.

Despite that, if TV is actually influencing the university choices of the young, shouldn’t we be trying harder to make sure that we, the scientific community, in turn influence what goes out on TV? It was not obvious ‘Call the Midwife’ was going to be such a hit. Is that down to the cute newborns who feature, or the woman of the moment Miranda Hart? Who knows, although even now focus groups are no doubt studying what the public most like about the programme to help the BBC find the next hit series. I don’t suppose it was foreseen that Brian Cox would be such a success either, but maybe the biologists need to find a successor to David Attenborough fast or they might fear their undergraduate numbers may be about to take a hit.

Can we work with the media to use them to provide good implicit careers’ advice to the teenagers who no longer get it at school? And do we need iconic faces – and/or ex-pop stars – in order to make that strategy work or is the content of the programme sufficient?

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3 Responses to Undue Influence?

  1. Chemistry has also seen a rise in applications from a low in the mid-2000s (around the time University’s were shutting departments). My department is now over-subscribed and the entry requirement is much higher than when I applied about 10 years ago. I don’t think chemistry has received as much positive media attention than, say, physics (despite Periodic Table of Videos, this years RI lectures and Jim Al-Khalili’s series on the elements), and anything it does get is probably balanced with more negative “chemophobia” stories. The UK’s chemical associations and departments have been involved in concerted engagement campaigns, particularly aimed at schoolchildren, which I think has helped. Has physics done the same? I think the economic argument (i.e. better job prospects) has also helped.

  2. Seve roser says:

    I asked the head of chemistry at the university of havana if applications were ok a couple of years ago and he said they were booming. However…. everyone wanted to do forensics because they watched CSI Miami on illegal cable……

  3. jjbp says:

    I think students on undergraduate midwifery courses get a NHS bursary which covers all their fees and gives a contribution to living expenses. I am sure that a degree course with no fees is going to be attractive!