The 2020-21 academic year will always be presented with an asterisk.
With impacts from the pandemic and associated restrictions felt throughout – it was the year of the terrifying October case peaks in student accommodation, the remote learning edicts of January, and the first of two years that saw the entry profile of students change radically – the key takeaway from the first seasonal refresh of sector data is just how strange it really was.
Lucy Van Essen-Fishman at HESA has produced a superb write up of some of the key findings from this first slice from the HESA student collection (we get the rest of the detail next month). Here’s what stood out for me.
Provider size and shape
We don’t get the provider and subject data until February, but the provider student numbers make for a great curtain raiser for the UCAS End of Cycle data due later this week. There’s been a lingering suspicion that more “prestigious” (read more selective) providers have expanded quickly to take on more students following better than expected A level results. But patterns of growth in student numbers among providers are more nuanced than that.
Looking at UK domiciled first degree numbers (left hand side) we can see that the University of Exeter and the University of Nottingham have grown slightly, but the really startling growth is at Buckinghamshire New University (11,060 in 2019-20, 14,645 in 2020-21), Anglia Ruskin University (16,860 to 19,885), and Canterbury Christ Church (8,815 to 11,605).
On international first degree students, the number at the University of Liverpool fell sharply while the number at UCL rose to nearly 12,000.
I wondered if these increases reflected the number of students taking an extra term to complete their course, meaning more in the third year or above in 2021 – but again we don’t yet have that data. And the difference by provider suggests that recruitment rather than unexpected retention is playing a part – though overall there is a slight rise in numbers.
Turning to postgraduate study we see a notable increase in international students studying at the University of Hertfordshire (up from 3,435 to 6,615) and the University of Glasgow (up from 6,105 to 8,590). Here the trend towards growth is more aggressive and the individual provider effects are starker.
Qualification rates and levels
Figure 15 is not usually one that sets pulses racing, but we can use it to see an interesting Covid-19 artefact. The end of the 2019-20 academic year did not see the usual levels of qualifications achieved – with the end of the year delivered primarily via remote learning there were many assessments (particularly practical ones, or others that needed to take place in person) that simply could not be done. And where students had the option, many chose to defer high-stakes exams – personal and family responsibilities often took priority.
So we can see from the data that 2020-21 qualification numbers rose sharply, as those who would otherwise have achieved their degree the previous year completed their courses.
Despite this, we see an ongoing growth in the proportion of all qualifications that were postgraduate taught, from 22 per cent of all qualifications in 2016-17 to 27 per cent in 2020-21. And the number of qualifiers at PhD level actually fell between 2019-20 (around 24,000) and 2020-21 (around 21,000). The big increase was in undergraduate qualifications – with first degrees rising from 416,000 to 440,000. And the 2019-20 dip in undergraduate qualifiers was particularly pronounced for those studying part time.
International students saw related but specific pressures during the main year of the pandemic, but there was a startling rise in the number of international masters degrees awarded in 2020-21 – 57 per cent of all qualifications awarded to international students were taught masters.
First degree classifications
Thirty-seven per cent of all undergraduate qualifiers achieved a first class degree – up from 26 per cent in 2016-17 and 35 per cent in 2019-20. The summer of the second year of the pandemic was not marred by the restrictions to in person teaching that affected the first, and although “no detriment” was still very much a thing it was applied differently. The other possible component of this (new normal) was the change to assessment practices following the experiences of 2019-20 – with moves to assess understanding and interpretation rather than recall in a number of providers and courses.
It’s a phenomenon that regulators and ministers are sure to return to – though the rate of increase in first class awards is broadly comparable to a historic trend, it is clear that the rise in 2019-20 will not be a one off.
Top-level data on participation in higher education by personal characteristics offers – this year – a remarkably deep examination of parental socio-economic classification (undergraduate UK domiciled students only.
In 2021 the proportion of first year students from what the classifications call “lower managerial and professional” backgrounds was greater than the proportion from “higher managerial and professional” backgrounds (numerically this has been the case since 2017-18). Though it is tempting to chalk this up as a win for widening access, it is also likely that demographic changes in the UK may also be a factor. It is notable that the number of first year students from families with a history of unemployment has risen in the last year (from 1,920 to 2,595) there is still a clear disparity here.
What to make of it
HESA has published a full report covering changes to data collection and the performance of the HESA Student and HESA Alternative Provider collections for 2020-21. There were some “administrative hold-ups” at providers, most notably impacting on the number of qualifications reported, but overall the impact of Covid on the quality of data appears to have been slight – and easily visible where there was an effect.
It is too early to unpick what might be temporary blips and what may be the start of the lasting trend but it is nationally comparable, gold standard, independent data like this we will all turn to to understand what becomes normal.