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What influences the choice of major subject in higher education in the UK?

Chapter 2: Literature Review

2.1 Introduction

The literature review section has focussed on providing a critical understanding of the major factors responsible for impacting the choice of major subject while pursuing higher education. A large number of factors like interpersonal, personal and environmental relating to pursuing a suitable subject in higher education exists in the context (Hemsley‐Brown et al., 2010). The process associated with selection of major subject for higher education has been looked forward to as a luxury activity and in certain situations even considered as an elitist act (Rauhvargers, 2011). However, with time the overall concept of major subject selection has experienced drastic changes, with students exhibiting an exponential demand in pursuing higher education. With the increase in demand for higher education, the consideration of a suitable process to be used for selecting an appropriate subject of specialisation, major subject became significant (Maltese and Tai, 2011). The dissertation work has performed a critical literature review by considering multiple point of views relating to identification of the factors that are considered to be crucial in helping a student select an appropriate subject as major for high education pursuance:


Major Subject

A major is a specific subject which a student selects for the purpose of doing specialisation in the process of aspiring a degree in college. The major subject selection process determines nearly half of the courses that a student takes up in college. The successful completion of major subject enables a student to exhibit high-level of competency and sustained work capability in the concerned field.

Decision Making Process

Decision making is the process by which a consumer makes proper choices through the process of identifying a suitable decision. It comprises of gathering information as well as assessing alternative resolutions relating to the decision to be made (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). A step-by-step decision-making process helps in undertaking deliberate and thoughtful decisions. It accounts for organising relevant information relating to the decision to be made followed by defining suitable alternatives relating to it.

Selection of literature

The literatures used for the study are mainly journal articles, relating to decision making process of students for selecting a proper subject of study. The journals feature work related to the research topic on varying context and different situational circumstances. The suitable literatures used in this case have been selected through proper keywords in university library database and Google Scholar.

2.2 The Student Major Subject Decision-Making Process

There are a series of theoretical models which focussed on providing detailed explanation of the phenomenon underlying the selection of major subject by a student in a higher educational context. The decision-making process has been identified to be a suitable choice in relation to accomplishing career and occupational objectives of an individual (Hemsley‐Brown, 2010). The study conducted by Johnson et al. (2016) on higher educational aspects however stated that the occupation choice theories have failed significantly since the process associated with selecting a major subject emerges out of a complex interplay of numerous variables. The occupational theories have been developed keeping in mind a universal convention relating to effective application in case of selecting a proper major subject or suitable future occupational choice for an individual. Likewise, Hodges and Karpova (2010) has been identified to be completely inconvenient in considering a single explanation for numerous major subject selection aspects of individuals. The multiple choices have been found to act as a resultant output of the differences existing in terms of cultural diversity, social lifestyle, interests as well as economic background too.


2.2.1 Major Selection Process

The factors identified to influence the process of major selection for a student looking forward to pursuing higher education has been developed as a classification schema, which represented the different aspects under the broad category of classes and groups (Brand and Xie, 2010). The wide range of factors impacting the selection process of major subject by students are broadly categorised into three aspects- personal characteristics, interpersonal characteristics and environmental factors. The personal characteristics comprised of demographic factors such as gender, lifestyle, social group, economic status and race along with psychographic factors like values, interests and attitudes. It also comprised of interpersonal factors pertaining to perception of individuals while it comes to making a suitable choice of major subject in the form of parental, teacher or peer interference (Biggs, 2011). The environmental factors have been identified as institution specific forces in the form of total cost required for accomplishing the educational degree and the reputation of the educational programme in the present environment (Cilliers et al., 2012). It has also been accountable for industry and occupational characteristics relating to employment opportunity and earning potential in the future course of action (Hodges and Karpova, 2010).

2.3 Major Factors of Influence

Hodges and Karpova conducted a study in (2010), where the major factors identified in the context of influencing the selection process of higher education major subject has been well elaborated in the following diagram. Furthermore, a detailed discussion of each of the factors have been done for the purpose of easing the process of understanding in a detailed manner.

Figure 1: Factors Impacting Selection of Major Subject in Higher Education

Factors Impacting Selection of Major Subject in Higher Education

(Source: Hodges and Karpova, 2010)

2.3.1 Personal Characteristics

The relative importance of demographics including gender and race were found to cause immense impact on the decision making of students relating to selection of a suitable major subject (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). The social class and economic status of the individual has been identified hold equal importance as that of degree of academic preparation effectiveness and the scholastic abilities (Harvey and Williams, 2010). Furthermore, aptitude and special abilities of students relating to a specific subject matter has played a significant role in driving the major subject selection process of individuals. In this regard, the relative degree of individual creativity as well as their level of interest in the specific field seemed to be highly significant. The study conducted by Griffith (2010) stated that students pursuing higher education in marketing and fashion-based subjects exhibited high degree of aptitude, critical thinking and special capabilities in comparison to those who have selected or pursuing family development, design, child and nutritional subjects. The degree of creativity with marketing and fashion designing students was found to be widespread than students involved in other major areas (Hodges and Karpova, 2010).

The significance of work values, defined as value set held by individuals are required to be satisfied and accomplishment through effective participation in their job role (López-Pérez, Pérez-López and Rodríguez-Ariza, 2011). For students, the perceived job satisfaction is found to act as a significant driver impacting the decision-making process of an individual to pursue a particular subject as major in higher educational endeavours. The selection process is largely guided by the attitude and feelings developed within individuals relating to work assignments that their selected major subject would help them in offering a prospective future (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). The relative importance of this factor in the selection process of a major subject is found to largely look forward to the degree of positive and favourable attitude developed within the students and their thought process too (Falchikov, 2013).

2.3.2 Interpersonal Characteristics

The role played by teachers in relation to helping students to select a subject as major is found to be highly significant (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). The high school teachers and college instructors were found to play a notable role in terms of acting as a source of interpersonal influence in helping students to decide which subject to be selected as major for their future higher educational aspirations (Falchikov et al., 2011). Furthermore, the role played by a teacher of a specific subject is found to play an important role in terms of impacting the thought process of the student towards that specific subject. The degree of positive effect exerted by the faculty member in this regard is so significant that it eases the process of decision making by the students to be much easier in relation to considering a subject suitable to be considered as major (Wang, 2013). The teachers involved in teaching home studies subjects were found to exert increased influence in terms of developing a prospective career with that subject (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). In contrast, the degree of influence generated by parents as well as peers is found to be more crucial in the student decision making process. The role played by parents for motivating and influencing students to consider medical as their major subject of study is a notable finding in the context of the present literature analysis of previous studies. The stages experience by students opting for selecting medical as major subject is found to exhibit highest rank to parental opinion and the desire to fulfil their needs at any cost as compared to subjects relating to arts and fashion (Hodges and Karpova, 2010).

Reay, Crozier and Clayton (2010) stated that women believe that expectations of society tend to act as important antecedents to their choice relating to occupation, and hence selecting an appropriate subject as major. The perceived consequences experienced by a female student is found to hold almost no relevance in deciding the subject for pursuing higher education. The majority of the female students from diverse major subjects were found to be influenced by a series of both favourable and unfavourable attitudes relating to that of others while selecting a suitable major subject and hence the future occupational effectiveness associated with it. The attitudes among the students in this case were found to be developed, as well as guided, through a process of discussion relating to alternative careers with peers, friends and advisors (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). Based on these discussions, the female students have been found to develop beliefs relating to whether they should opt for a specific subject as major and pursue the associated career goals or not (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). For instance, there are certain subjects of study in higher educational sector like fashion to be looked forward to being predominant by the female student population. As a result, it highlights the relative importance of analysing the relative importance of degree of interpersonal influence that students tend to exhibit during the decision-making process relating to selection of major subjects in higher educational sector.

2.3.3 Environmental Characteristics

Institution or academic program related factors in the form of reputation of the school, university or the specific program, quality of instruction and introductory class size has been identified to be significant in terms of influencing the major subject selection process (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). Two of the notable, criteria identified in the process of selecting business subjects as major by students has been identified to be suitable and associated with widespread employment opportunities. It also accounted for high starting compensational packages and the immense operational opportunities all across the world in the present globalised business context (Baeten et al., 2010). On the other hand, the study conducted by Rauhvargers (2011) however stated that students who are found to be interested in pursuing a suitable career opportunity using the major subject tends to consider the business studies to be a suitable option in this context. Furthermore, the students associated with textile and apparel industry-based study are found to look forward to considering the subject to be suitable for major. It is due to the perceived career image developed within their mind relating to textile and apparel industry.

According to Obermeit (2012), it is of immense significance to note that demographic factors and grade point average practically play a crucial role in making decision relating to selecting a suitable subject as major. The consideration of presence of adequate employment opportunities has been identified as primary factor impacting the students to consider accountancy, financial management, engineering and technology to be important subjects to be taken into consideration (Regan and DeWitt, 2015). The role played by extrinsic benefit factors such as compensation packages, perception of future job prospects and the relative prestige and fame gained in the corporate sector goes ahead with driving the major subject selection process of students. The process is largely explained from the point of view of personal fit, where and individual is found to experience and perceive as subject to be well coordinated with their interest as well as personality (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). Furthermore, the study conducted by Van Dinther, Dochy and Segers (2011) stated that individuals who are found to primarily rely on factors associated with extrinsic benefits are likely to experience less satisfaction with the selected major subject. The choice of major on personal fit is found to help in exhibiting increased student satisfaction (Hodges and Karpova, 2010).

The degree of influence generated by faculty perceptions are found to be significant in terms of acting as a suitable driver of student major subject selection process (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). The students are found to exhibit increased high degree of inclination towards selection of business majors due to the wide range of prospective career opportunities it tends to offer (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). Therefore, it can be said that selection of subject major is largely related to the occupational choice it goes ahead with offering to the students. The degree of positive relationship in between the two aspects has been identified due to the relative importance of certain environmental factors. The degree of employment opportunities and the ability to develop a good earning potential is widespread within the decision-making process. Therefore, a logical link has been identified to exist within the choice of major subject and the choice of occupation within the course of a student’s decision-making process relating to pursuing higher education.

2.4 Application of Occupational Choice Theories

A large number of disciplines went ahead with contributing to the process of developing theories for the purpose of making a suitable attempt to understand and assist the complex process relating to occupation choice. In this case, the prominent ones are being considered as psychology and sociology (Hodges and Karpova, 2010).The developmental theory of occupational aspirations and social cognitive career theory of psychology have been largely used for the purpose of exploring occupational choice (Barnett, 2011). The theory of personality and related inventory have been used by career counsellors for the purpose of assisting the student selection process.  Each of these modern theories have been developed in accordance to the conceptual framework. The conceptual framework has primarily highlighted that the process associated with selection of a subject for higher studies depends on the relationship existing in between a set of factors. The relative understanding level of an individual towards their aptitude, ambition, interests, abilities, limitations and resources as well as knowledge relating to necessary pre-requisites, advantages, disadvantages, conditions of success, opportunities, compensation as well as prospects related to different occupations arising from the selected field of study. However, the theories developed from the psychological point of view tends to offer a completely new outlook of the factors impacting the decisions relating selection of major subjects.

The psychological stream of studies and theories went ahead with considering individual characteristics, like value, interest, aptitude, personality and traits of students to be of prime significance. The effect of social structure and institutions in this case are found to exert increased influence on the phenomenon relating to career development and occupational choice (Saleh and Bista, 2017).Influential theories relating to sociological perspective such a Musgrave’s Theory of Occupational Choice and Status Attainment Model of Blau and Duncan has been found to be of important in terms of identifying the factors impacting the studnets (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). Based on the proposed framework relating to intentional action as well as emphasis on joint action, the factors relating to addressing social and dynamic nature of the major subject selection process is found to be highly significant. It also accounts for highlighting the underlying career aspects of a student, like agency, goals and plans (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). On the other hand, Saleh and Bista (2017) stated the relative importance of context in a dynamic approach relating to suitable career choice development.

The process associated with gaining detailed knowledge about occupation for the purpose of selecting major subjects as a part of higher education has witnessed the application of a large number of theories from different fields. The studies conducted in relation to decision-making are found to make effective use of the reasoned action theory along with the theory of planned behaviour. Each of them is found to be highly significant in terms of determining the occupational choice antecedents among the female student (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). Furthermore, it went ahead with determining as well as analysing constructs underlying the selection of accounting as a major subject by students for higher educational purpose. The students have been subjected to a wide range of things and factors as a part of making gradual progress in the decision-making process.

According to Wu et al. (2012), the theories relating to occupational choice are used largely for the purpose of explaining the behavioural characteristics of students relating to selection a subject as major for pursuing higher educational goals. In this case, significant differences between male and female students are found in relation to selection of subjects as well as decision making process. The degree of impact exhibited by historic patterns of discrimination as well as present societal prejudices are also found to impact the overall thought process as well as perception of students towards specific occupations and the subject that guides towards it (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). The degree of impact developed by ethnic and cultural differences plays a major role in terms of selecting a suitable subject as major. The decision in this case is found to be largely impacted by the occupational perception and the differences relating to it among people from different cultural and ethnical backgrounds (Hodges and Karpova, 2010).

2.5 Impact of Professional Field Selection

The selection of a suitable profession by a student has been identified to be governed by their relative interest in a specific academic field. The degree of impact developed by the subject on the student’s mind is a major factor of influence. There are a large number of students found to well aware of the professional field they would join after completion of their studies (Zepke and Leach, 2010). In this regard, the entire growth phase of a student is governed and influenced by that particular professional field. This student category is found to go at any cost for the purpose of successfully securing their dream job (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). According to Palmer, Burke and Aubusson (2017), a suitable professional field selection is governed by the salary and benefits that it tends to offer to a student upon joining a job in that particular area. The presence of a highly satisfactory salary in turn induces the student to consider the selection of a particular profession. Hence, the students further move towards selecting the subjects as major that would help in going ahead with the desire professional field. The process is found to be largely governed by certain factors relating to job characteristics, social benefits as well as major attributes and psychological importance associated with selection of a professional field and hence the desired subject as major. For instance, a student looking forward to emerging as a successful professional in the field of business management, will prefer selecting marketing or sales as the major subject. The overall selection process is found to be governed by the extent to which a student is able to earn a lumpsum amount of money with the selected professional field (Conole and Alevizou, 2010). As a result, it can be largely said that the process accounts for student decision making process relating to future job benefits as well as accomplishment of their career dreams.

The relationship between the selection of professional field and choice of major subject in higher students takes into consideration the degree of academic capability exhibited by students (Wu et al., 2012). Certain students have been identified who aspire to pursue a particular professional field but are not competent enough to deal with the complexities associated with learning the subjects to be considered as major for the purpose (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). In this case, the relative impact of professional field selection has been identified to hold almost no relevance in the process of selecting major subject by students. The situation demands students to ensure that the selected professional field is largely within their academic scope and ability. According to Brown, Bull and Pendlebury (2013) students having the desired potential to work in greater workloads are found to opt for professions like doctors and lawyers.

The study conducted by Barnett (2011) stated that there are students who possess the ability to work in professional fields demanding labour intensive output but lack the necessary academic intelligence required for studying the concerned subjects. In such a scenario, the students are found to not lose the motivation to accomplish the career dream by selecting some other subject and hence professional field. Instead they get engaged in seeking help from teachers and tutors to gain the ability to select the suitable subject as major and hence the desired professional file. The role played by teachers are found to be highly significant in terms of offering widespread opportunity relating to experiencing success in both selection of a suitable professional filed as well as the major subject required for the purpose (Zepke and Leach, 2010). The effectiveness of the relationship existing in between the two fields are largely governed by the process of help and support experienced by the students from all possible sources.

The personality of students is found to play an integral role in terms of determining the selection of a suitable professional field by a student to further excel in their career. The selection process is largely governed by the profession as well as the relating subjects that tends to find good match with a student personality (Hong, 2015). The degree of confidence existing with a student is identified to be a major factor governing the selection of a suitable career as well as the major subject required for the purpose. The confidence level is found to be significant in terms of determining the extent to which a student can proceed forward in accomplishing his educational dreams. Hence, based on the selection of a suitable professional field, the degree of confidence developed impacts the process of considering a particular subject as major. On the other hand, Astin (2012) stated that students possessing, and investigative type of personality exhibits increased desire in developing a career in science profession. In this case, the students were found to emphasise more in selecting science related subjects as major. The students identified to exhibit an artistic personality opt for developing a career in professions relating to interdisciplinary field as well as arts (Hodges and Karpova, 2010).  

The social background of the students has been identified to be suitable factors impacting the professional field selection process and the major subject. Family and friends played a significant role in developing widespread influence on students as move forward to the process of selecting a suitable subject as major (Barnett, 2011). The parents and family members belonging to medicinal background tends to impact the student to too develop their career in that particular field and thereby entitled to enjoying the benefits associated with it. The degree of impact developed in this case in relating to selecting subjects relating to medical as major due to the fact that the concerned person acts as a family role mode to the student right from the early stages of his educational development and nurturing. Brown, Bull and Pendlebury (2013) stated that the role played by teachers and mentors also impacts the selection of a suitable profession in the field. In this case, the relative importance of the impact is found to lie in the increased effort made by teachers or mentor to study the concerned subjects relating to a specific field (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). Furthermore, it is to be noted that teachers and mentors are found to act as pioneers of influencing the thought process and perception of students and hence their selection of a suitable field of profession and the major subject to be studied for the purpose.  

2.6 Impact of Compensation Gap

Higher education in Europe has witnessed little effort from the institutions in relation to determining the tuition fee for the course (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). The difference in the fees to be paid for the degree varies considerably depending on the subject which the student is pursuing (Conole and Alevizou, 2010). It also accounted the differences relating to providing the educational programs to the students in a substantial manner. The unique pricing strategy developed for tuition fees in educational institutions has been identified to contribute to the emergence of equity problems. The students pursuing higher educational degree in costlier programs are witnessed to earning the maximum in the future course of action (Hodges and Karpova, 2010). The differences in final compensation structure thereby resulted in the development of suitable reforms to be used for a higher educational market, thereby allowing immense differentiation potential.

According to Palmer, Burke and Aubusson (2017), a gender wage gap is found to exist within the process associated with student selection of major subjects. Due to the differences in tuition fees based on the type of subject chosen, the decision-making process relating to major subject selection goes ahead with the consideration of compensation gap to be of prime significance. The students are engaged in the process of seeking a wide range of information relating to the compensation structure of a particular profession and the growth prospects associated with it. The differences in selection of subjects as major by students for higher education thereby requires considering the wage differences. Astin (2012) stated that the differences in terms of wages is found to be significance based on the type of major subject selected by the student. For instance, students pursuing major subjects in the field of science, health, social science relating to law, economics and business are found to earn more than those associated with humanities, arts and educational field. The increase in liberalisation of the marketplace for developing suitable educational opportunities in a large number of countries are found to experience the impact of compensation gap. The relative willingness of a student to develop a mindset of paying more for a particular degree and the selection of a suitable major subject largely considers the differences relating to compensation gap (Hodges and Karpova, 2010).

2.7 Research Gap

The literature review successfully collected multiple point of views relating to how students proceed towards identifying the most suitable subject to be considered as major in accomplishing higher educational goals. A large number of studies considered for the purpose highlighted the consideration of numerous theories and successful identification of the factors impacting the process. A wide range of factors are found to impact the decision-making process of the student, hence considering the present study to be of immense significance. Although a large number of information relating to the research study has been identified, but none of them focussed on the higher educational sector of the United Kingdom. A gap has been identified to be prominent within the existing studies, enriched with adequate amount of data relating to identification of factors that are responsible for impacting the decision-making process of students towards major subject selection. The primary focus of the present research study thereby lies in the process of overcoming the identified research gap by conducting the study from the UK educational marketplace and student major subject decision-making process.

2.8 Summary/conclusion  

There are a large number of factors impacting the ability of a student to decide which of the factors they look forward to while considering a subject as major for pursuing higher studies. The relative importance of demographic, interpersonal as well as environmental factors has been identified from a critical point of view using the existing literature findings. However, the degree of impact exerted by each of these factors tends to vary significantly from one student to another as well as the source of influence experienced in the process.

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