HESA spring 2021: qualifications, subjects, student characteristics

Thirty-five per cent of graduates were awarded a first in 2019-20. David Kernohan digs into the data without detriment.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

Sometimes with HESA data it’s just nice to have. Sometimes there’s a huge headline that you know is going to spark any number of thinkpieces and ministerial statements.

Guess what kind this release is.

Degree classifications

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In 2019-20, the academic year marred by a disorderly shift to online learning and assessment, thirty-five percent of first degree students received first class honours – up from 28 per cent in 2018-19. These are not “unexplained firsts” – we know exactly what happened. No detriment.

The pattern exists among all groups of students – in all four UK nations. “No detriment” usually means a safety net – a way of assuring students obtain at least their average grade so far unless they did better in the summer assessment. It was popular, though not universal, last academic year as a means of supporting students through the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Providers themselves struggled – HESA suggests there is some evidence that in a few places “administrative hold-ups” mean some qualifications may not have been reported. There could be even more first class degrees.

You’ll hear all the usual voices on this issue in the coming days and weeks, but remember this. Students obtain at least their average grade. To get a first, someone would need to have been averaging a first in the year so far. This is emphatically not a matter of handing out firsts like confetti – this is recognising work that has already been done. Nobody who got a first in 2019-20 did so without working at a first class level for at least the normal part of the academic year. Class of 2020, take your praise.

Provider and domicile

The release of data for student numbers of providers by domicile gives us the state of providers ahead of the problematic 2020 UCAS cycle (data on that turns up on 5 February if you are wondering). These are student numbers as of December 2019.

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I’ve gone a bit fancy on the plotting, the map marks show provider student domicile splits as pie charts (yes, I know…) but if you click on them you can see the proportions as a bar chart on the right. The level and mode filters help you look at particular student populations. Plotting like this helps me show you what a big deal English students are in Wales, and how home students dominate sectors in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I’m delighted to report that the Oxford Brookes issue has finally been fixed – no more will we see an extra 256,450 offshore students in provider level data. The issue stems from a Brookes-validated offer to the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants – changes to reporting practices means that this famous data anomaly is no more. There’s only data on offshore students at a sector level today – and you can see the impact of this change, but one to look forward to in the main release.

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Student characteristics

For the first time we get a time series on student religious belief – nearly half of students now claim to have “no religion”, and the number of students claiming to be “Christian” fell from 32 per cent to 30 per cent. The proportion of students reporting a disability rose from remains at 12 per cent, which represents more than 140,000 students.

Looking at overall numbers over a time series, the growth in taught postgraduate students continues – while undergraduate study outside of a first degree continues to fall. This drop in demand for what we may describe as “higher technical qualifications” will be noted with concern at the Department of Education – in England numbers now stand at three-quarters of those in 2015-16, a drop not seen in other parts of the UK.

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Subject of study

Fun for data classification fans here. For a while now, HESA has been planning to move from JACS to HECoS coding for the presentation of time series. 2019-20 was the first time data was collected using HECoS CAH and the intention was to retrospectively classify data collected against JACS for 2018-19 to give us an idea of the changing size of subject areas.

It appears this hasn’t worked. There are huge changes in student numbers in social sciences subjects (up), and biological and sports sciences (down) – knowing what we know about recent years of recruitment via UCAS this feels unlikely.


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HESA tells us the shifts are also true at CAH level 3, suggesting underlying changes to the way courses are classified (a matter I covered on the site on Monday). Some of this is good news – courses classified in “other” categories now have a proper home, but other parts of it will be down to the vagaries of selecting what subject to return data against. There’s a more detailed analysis to come, but if you are looking to specify course attributes (say OfS price groups or “low quality courses”) this finding indicates trouble ahead.

Bonus data

Participation data has been expanded for 2021.

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4 responses to “HESA spring 2021: qualifications, subjects, student characteristics

  1. At least in my institution, all academic controls were effectively lifted. For example, a 1 hour exam normally sat under exam conditions was changed to allow 24 hours with no invigilation (i.e., students were free to use the internet, other students etc. to help them). These exams were not changed to focus less on bookwork etc. The only surprise is that the number of 1sts wasn’t even larger.

  2. Interesting data – as always well done David K … and thank you for making it accessible

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