HSC Trends 2022: Easier Subjects and Early Offers

HSC exams are due to start in less than a week, and we’ve seen some new trends over the past few years around subject selection and tertiary studies. The number of students taking difficult subjects has dropped to record lows, especially higher level maths. There’s a concerning gender gap in these subjects too. On the other hand, early offers from universities are at an all-time high.

Taking it easy: a drop in numbers for difficult HSC subjects

This year, the number of students sitting the physics HSC exam has dropped to a 20-year low, at only 7730 kids. This is almost 2000 fewer students than 10 years ago. Physics is a notoriously difficult subject, with some analysis putting it in the top ten hardest subjects to achieve a band 6 in.

Vice President of the NSW Science Teachers’ Association, Lauren McKnight, said the downturn in physics enrolments “possibly reflects more on the nature of the exams, student workloads, and the overt focus on band performance.”

The proportion of girls taking the subject has remained stagnant for over a decade; this year only 22% of candidates were girls.

On the other hand, the proportion of female students taking chemistry and biology has risen slightly – in biology, they outnumber boys at 65% of candidates. Biology joins business and PDHPE as increasingly popular subjects, hitting near-10-year records for enrolment.

Enrolments in higher-level mathematics courses have also been declining for a while. Enrolments in the three advanced maths subjects (Maths Advanced, Extension 1 and Extension 2) has fallen 12% in 20 years. At the same time, enrolment in lower-level maths (Maths Standard 1 and 2) has grown 15%.

Unfortunately, here too there’s been a gender gap. The proportion of girls taking higher level maths in this year’s HSC is at its lowest in more than 20 years. This is despite the efforts to put more women in STEM studies, and the shift to make advanced maths a pre-requisite in many uni courses since 2019.

Proportion of maths enrolments by gender for 2022 HSC students. Source: NESA

Most STEM courses at the tertiary level require a knowledge of calculus, something that isn’t taught in Standard Mathematics. Unlike English, maths is not compulsory in senior high school, though NSW plans to change this eventually.

Early bird: early entrance schemes flourishing

Direct offers through university early entrance schemes have seen record highs this year. Most universities that offer this pathway have reported significant increases in the number of offers they’ve made compared to previous years.

Western Sydney University, for example, has already made almost 7000 early offers, an increase of 26% from the same time last year, with two offer rounds still remaining. Professor Andrew Norton, a higher education expert from ANU, says universities are incentivised to make early offers in order to capture student numbers in an increasingly competitive market.

The importance of ATAR as a singular admissions pathway is diminishing, with many institutions using pathway schemes, early entry programs, portfolios and more to diversify admissions processes.

For many students, an early offer takes the pressure off for the final exams – a significant advantage for yet another cohort disrupted by COVID and teaching shortages. But many schools don’t like it, with secondary staff concerned it encourages students to slack off before the HSC.

The HSC exams will start on the 13th of October.

Follow Maddie’s journalism on Twitter.

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