HESA Spring 2023: Students

David Kernohan separates time series artefacts from established trends in an analysis of our first glimpse of student data for 2021-22

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

The 2020-21 academic year was an odd one for sector data.

The issue isn’t necessarily with the data itself – it fairly reflects what happened that year – but with our reflexive need as consumers to compare data to the previous or subsequent year.

Building time series is a problem. And this problem is something that will show up in regulation for years to come.

Many of us, of course, called this at the time.

Pandemic and beyond

If you imagine a 2020-21 without Covid-19, there’d still be a lot going on in the data. The end of EU student eligibility for home student fees and support has had a profound effect on the make-up of cohorts recruited since then. Away from the unexpected huge rise in student numbers other pandemic effects – changes to degree awarding patterns, the propensity of UK students to travel abroad to study, where students live during term time – have all had an impact.

Today’s release of the first look at 2021-22 HESA Student data – alongside a research report into the impact of Covid-19 on that year of data – is riven with examples illustrating the new dangers in time series.

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For instance, you’ll see headlines on the decline in undergraduate student numbers – with all the usual commentary in all the usual places. This, of course, is a year on year comparison – student numbers have returned to an established trend of growth linked to demographics. But even then, when you dig down into the data, you spot that the number of home students has continued to grow year on year. Indeed, had 2021-22 not seen the near total collapse of EU enrollment the overall trend would have been one of growth.

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Elsewhere – huge growth in PGT enrolment continues, but PGR saw a year-on-year decline. And, contrary to some expectations, the decline in the number of students studying at an FE college continued.

The increasing size of the PGT student population means that the age of students is skewing upwards – and even among first years on a first undergraduate degree just 68 per cent are under 20, down from 72 per cent in 2017-18 but up slightly over last year.

Taking care of business

You remember all the stories about a pandemic-driven rush to healthcare provision? In reality business studies continue to dominate enrollment with 19 per cent students enrolling in this subject (2020-21, 17 per cent). HESA tells us that a huge chunk of this was attributed to non-EU PGT increases – but first year enrolments in business and management increased by 12 per cent.

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There’s a gender difference here too – healthcare studies are more popular among women, business among men (a fifth of all first undergraduate degrees!), and a quarter of the sector’s non-binary first degree students are studying performing arts.

The most popular subject to do postgraduate research in remains engineering, though this proportion has dropped over the past year. Psychology is first among the rising research topics. And nearly a quarter of PGT enrollments are in business – MBAs are a huge factor here.

First class

Pandemic-era university assessment practices – online exams, no detriment policies – were seemingly very good at identifying first class students. Despite higher education grades being criterion rather than norm referenced, this brought about the usual concerns about dumbing down from regulators, ministers and the popular press.

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The 2021-22 data, as it so often does in this release, shows a return to the norm. Even Susan Lapworth is happy.

Today’s figures show a welcome decrease back towards pre-pandemic levels in the proportion of first class degrees awarded to students graduating in the 2021-22 academic year… left unchecked, grade inflation can erode public trust and it is important that the OfS can and does intervene where it has concerns about the credibility of degrees.

Well, almost.

Dig a little deeper and there are some other problems to ponder – why, for example, do part time students attain less well than their full time peers (noting that part time students are more likely to be from disadvantaged groups? Or, indeed, why are Scottish students more likely to see a First than English students?

It’s good Universities UK has fostered a move to more transparency and consistency in assessment – so maybe it is time we started treating degree classifications like an indicator of quality again.

Bonus data: provider student numbers over three years

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One response to “HESA Spring 2023: Students

  1. Presumably you mean “students in Scotland” and “students in England” rather than Scottish and English students.

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