Sunday 21 March is the most important day of the year

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe


This is a briefing for Wonkhe SUs subscribers.

Sunday 21 March should be marked in red in your diary.

It’s the day of the 2021 census in England and Wales – the biggest data collection exercise in the UK. On this day every household will complete an online form (this is the first year of digital data collection), and the responses will shape the next decade of public policy.

Local and national planning for healthcare, education, transport, and local amenities are all determined by the number of people living in an area.

You absolutely need to fill in a form, and you absolutely need to get everyone you know to fill in a form.

Given so much rides on the numbers in terms of local investment and facilities, you absolutely need to get students to fill in their forms.

The last census (in 2011) saw an amazing 94 per cent response rate, giving us a very high resolution model of England and Wales. There’s (anonymised) data on everything from housing costs and earnings, to wellbeing and personal characteristics. But because this is Wonkhe, I need to admit that the very best thing about census data is how much it tells us about students that we can’t identify elsewhere.

Students in the census

Housing is a key one. Where do students live? The census gives us data to a resolution of a few streets. How much rent do they pay? We can see this in amazing detail. We can also learn what jobs students do, and how much they are paid. We can understand healthcare and transport needs. All of this benefits current and future students.

But 2021 is an exceptional year in many ways – for students census day will see far fewer students at their “term time address” than this time in any other year. So how can we know about the number of students in an area in a regular year if the students aren’t currently there?

We asked the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Here’s what they told us:

  • All students need to be included in the census, and they should complete it for their usual term-time address. If they’re currently living at their home address, they will need to be included in the census for that household too.
  • If they are at their term-time address currently, they’ll get a letter with an access code so they can complete the questionnaire online.
  • If they are living elsewhere (for example at their parent’s house) ONS still cares about where they would be were this a regular year. They’ll be asked to request an access code online, so they can complete the census for their term time address.
  • The exception is if they don’t intend to return to their term-time address at all during the 2020-21 academic year, even to collect belongings. In this case they are returned as part of the household they are living with on census day.
  • International students who would normally be in England or Wales but are attending university remotely will be contacted via universities.

Getting the word out

If you’re thinking that somebody needs to let students know about this, the census team are already on it. The ONS told us:

We have launched a student-specific census campaign to raise awareness and the National Statistician has written to all vice-chancellors to ask for their help in sending written prepared emails and other material to all students on our behalf.

And there is a student specific census website with all the details that you need. We’re early in the cycle, but this website will eventually allow students to request an access code to get the form they need to complete. Expect a barrage of publicity and messages over the next few weeks

As well as completing the form as a good citizen, or because the census is awesome, there is the small matter of the law. It is a legal requirement to complete the census (though there are some voluntary questions you don’t have to answer, for instance on gender identity and sexual orientation). If you don’t complete the form, or if you supply false information, you could be fined up to £1,000.

Checking the data

The main census is followed by a census coverage survey and a census quality survey. If you are selected to be a part of these surveys (which just ask you to complete some parts of the census again) you’ll be contacted. These surveys help ONS understand how accurate the data that has been collected actually is, and help them design ways to make it more accurate.

The ONS also checks census data against other information about students. It’s the diligence and rigour of these checks that mean that the census data is the gold standard for understanding England and Wales, and also why we don’t get to play with the outputs until 2022. In use, census data is supplemented by other, more frequent surveys – if you’re a massive nerd like me you can download and play with local data here.

Bonus data

I couldn’t resist. Here’s a quick plot of where students lived in England in 2011, and what kind of accommodation they were in.

[Full screen]

The filter on the top lets you see different types of accommodation, the one on the bottom lets you choose an area of the country. If you look at your local area does this still ring true?

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