David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

When students are discussed at a national – or even a local – level the sheer diversity of within this group is often overlooked.

When it comes to big policy decisions or articles in the popular press, the default student enters a university you have heard of, straight from school, with three good A levels, studying a traditional academic subject in order to graduate with an honours degree.

They likely come from a background where university entry is expected – so possess all of the innate skills and attributes that allow them to flourish in higher education.

Parts of that are true.

Who are the students?

Some 58.3 per cent of all students are full time on a first degree – just under a quarter of these study at a Russell Group university, just under half are at a large traditional (founded before 1992) university.

A little over 50 per cent of undergraduates are under 20 – rising to 60.1 per cent if you consider only first years.

First degree students are still more likely to come from the least deprived quintile (IMD) of areas – but the next most popular background is the most deprived quintile (some 19.89 per cent of all students are from IMD quintile 1 backgrounds. Less than half of first degree students have parents who have experienced higher education themselves.

More than 100,000 students study nursing as an undergraduate first degree – of these more than two thirds are over 21.

Forty-four per cent of postgraduate research students are aged 30 and over. Indeed, nearly 17 per cent of undergraduate students are aged over 30 – though only 23 per cent of the 130,000 nursing undergraduate students are under 20.

More than 15 per cent of undergraduates have entered their current course with an equivalent level (undergraduate or postgraduate qualification). For adult nursing courses, this rises to nearly 30 per cent.

The charts

All these charts are taken from HESA’s open data collection, and allow you to explore some of these issues further.

Students by level and mode

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Students by provider mission group and region

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Student characteristics – widening participation

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Students by age group

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Students by age and subject of study

Subject group shows top level CAH, then you can select one or more subjects beneath using the subject filter

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Students by entry qualifications and subject of study

Subjects are selected as above.

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There are no “students”

There are many more dimensions to understanding students – we’ll hear much more at The Secret Life of Students.

But even using sector wide publicly available data (for England the OfS access and participation dashboard has much more at a provider level) we can see that the word “student” disguises a huge variety of experiences and aspirations. The days of talking about “students” as a single homogenous population, or even making assumptions about default characteristics, are over.

This is taking a while to filter through to national policy making. You can see in conversations about, say, loan eligibility requirements, accommodation, and maintenance that the 18 year old school leaver default will persist in the minds of ministers and policy makers for a while yet – and it is essential that we are able to push back where vast swathes of students are disadvantaged by something supposed to focus on what is perceived to be the norm.

But there are provider-level implications too – from how the timetable works to how welcome week is designed. The sheer variety of students persists at the provider level too – and subject areas and course types are also a factor. The first step to dealing with this diversity is to find out more.

On 14 March in London Wonkhe presents The Secret Life of Students where we’ll be getting real about student experience. Find out more and book tickets here

One response to “Finding the reality of who students are in data

  1. It’s interesting to track changes over a longer time period than the published HESA tables allow you to look at as it shows the impact of making big policy decisions based on that default student..

    Go back to 2009/10 and only 39% of entrants to undergraduate courses were FT students coming in straight from school or after a gap year at ages 18 or 19 compared to 55% in 2021/22.

    Even more striking, only 17% of undergraduate entrants aged 30 and over were studying full-time in 2009/10 compared to 57% in 2021/22, mainly because there are only half as many people aged 30 and over accessing HE than in 2009/10 as part-time study collapsed following the 2012 student funding reforms.

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