Promise of a 'caring generation' as more students choose to study vocational courses

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The Independent Online

A new caring generation of students will be flocking to universities this summer.

Figures published today by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), show a massive increase in the number of youngsters opting to study caring professions.

Social work has shown the biggest rise in candidates - 94.6 per cent, to 22,101. Others to show a marked rise are nursing, up by 23 per cent to 34,414 students, and pre-clinical medicine, which can lead to qualification as a doctor and has increased by 21.7 per cent to 68,456.

The number of students wanting to study nutrition - which can lead to work as a dietician - also shows a big rise at a time of growing concern over obesity in the UK.

Headteachers' leaders said yesterday that the image of the caring professions had improved in the past few years.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "This Government hasn't gone out of its way to denigrate them - as has happened in the past.

"They have put more money into public services - even though some would say it is not enough - and have generally gone out of their way to stress the important work the public services carry out."

Employers' leaders said that there could still be some fall-out as a result of concerns over the economy, even though economic indicators were now predicting a brighter future.

Social work and nursing representatives said that their professions were moving towards a more graduate entry profession.

One subject to show a surprising rise in applications was mathematics. The Government's efforts to persuade more people to take up the subject were given a boost by an increase of 16.3 per cent to 24,693 applications this year.

One explanation for the rise is that the previous year, the numbers taking the subject at A-level plummeted following disastrous results at AS-level, when one in three youngsters failed the examination and decided not to pursue it to A-level. Exam boards later admitted the AS-level had been too hard and changed it for the following year.

The rise in applications for the caring professions comes at the expense of subjects such as information systems, which is down 27.6 per cent, computer science, down 19 per cent, and physics, which received 10.4 per cent fewer applications.

Applications for computer courses are thought to have suffered as a result of publicity given to a spate of companies going bust.

Another degree course to suffer is American studies, which is down by 13.3 per cent in the year that the country's decision to go to war in Iraq provoked major controversy.

Overall, the Ucas figures - compiled after the advisory early closing date for university applications - show a 3.4 per cent rise on last year from 341,419 to 353,171.

Ministers will take heart that the number of under 21-year-olds opting for higher education shows a significant rise after years of stagnation put down to fears of student debt. The number has risen by 3,984 (1.5 per cent) compared with just 0.5 per cent (1,338) last year. The figures also show a large rise - 72.4 per cent from 5,623to 9,696 - in candidates opting to study the new two-year foundation degree courses introduced by the Government as part of its plan to get 50 per cent of youngsters into higher education by the end of the decade.

Ministers expect the majority of the increased numbers opting for higher education to come in through this route, which offers more vocationally orientated degree courses such as in engineering, construction, nursing and the performing arts.

The figures were welcomed last night by ministers. A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said they proved the need for an expansion of the university system.

Among the rising number of students pursuing a career in social work is 39-year-old Owen Ffrench, from Penge in south London. He left school at 16 with five CSEs, but decided to return to education last year.

He believes that he has finally found his calling and plans to become a social worker after studying the subject at university this autumn.

Mr Ffrench worked as a chef and baker at Claridges and Fortnum and Masons.

But he is switching careers after 22 years after deciding that he wanted to do a job "which made a real difference to people in need".

Mr Ffrench said: "Obviously it's been an enormous change from being a chef, but it's been fantastic. It's like I have finally found my true calling."

He added: "I was just waking up in the mornings thinking there has to be more to life than this. I had always been drawn to social work so I decided to go back to college and really pursue my dream."

The former chef is almost half-way through a one-year access course in social work at Lewisham College, which will prepare him for university study. He has applied to five universities in the capital to start a three-year social work degree this autumn. He said: "There is so much going on in the world and there seem to be so many people who need someone to be there for them."