HESA Spring: where students come from and what they study?

Full detail on the HESA 2020-21 student population includes a very welcome surprise. David Kernohan unwraps some important new data on local recruitment

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

I’ve been looking for this data for ages.

It’s long been lamented that although HESA can tell us how many University of Reading students are domiciled in Botswana (15), it has been reticent on how many are based in Berkshire.

County domicile by provider


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We still don’t know for sure on that one – blame the vagaries of UK administrative geography – but we do know how many come from Reading (605), and nearby Wokingham (520). What’s more, we know that 290 and 270 of these students (respectively) are postgraduates with 60 and 35 of these on research programmes.

In an era of civic responsibility – and dare we say “levelling up”? – it is now transparent how well each provider is catering to local and regional communities in terms of student enrolment.

Looking at things another way

A swift inversion and we can see which providers are doing the heavy participation lifting in each locality. One of the provisions of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill calls for providers to (not in) each locality to take account of employer-identified local skills needs (via a Local Skills Improvement Plan or LSIP). It’s not a requirement for HE provision though it would likely be expected for those moving into apprenticeships or higher technical qualifications – but how do you know which providers should be involved? Here is how:

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For instance – Redcar and Cleveland is primarily served by a local provider (Teesside), a handful of regional ones (Newcastle, Northumbria, Sunderland, York St John) and – like everywhere else – the Open University. As a local area often cited as in need of “levelling up” you’d expect these providers to have thoughts about the LSIP. You might expect Durham and York to get involved – but, in this case, not so much.

In the same way, you’d expect the Open University to have any eye on nearly every local skills improvement plan, something that could end up being rather time consuming and expensive. And, to a lesser extent, some major regional providers – Teesside as above, UWE, De Montfort, Nottingham Trent, Manchester Met – will have rather a lot to think about.

Subject splits

This time we get two years of subject data by provider at 2 levels – subject group (CAH level 1) and subject detail (CAH level 3).

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Here I’ve plotted at both levels and for both years, so you can look at changes by provider – the level and mode filter remains so you can check out skews between undergraduate and postgraduate offerings. Selecting “all” on the provider menu will let you look across the whole sector.

At that level we can see growth in business, and subjects allied to medicine – two subject groups now accounting for over 30 per cent of all students in higher education, more than 800,00 students. There’s big growth in psychology and law, and another fall in  single-subject language provision.

For postgraduate research, engineering dominates – with numbers static at around 14,000 over both years. And there’s been significant growth in part-time undergraduate students in subject allied to medicine – an example of the Covid effect?

Transnational provision

Another Covid effect may have been an increase in transnational provision – with travel restrictions making a UK qualification studied away from the UK feel much more attractive. There was a substantial growth in distance and flexible learning offered overseas in 2020-21 – with overseas campuses and collaborative partnerships also showing a strong increase.

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You can use the provider dropdown here to look at individual provider activity – Glasgow Caledonian, for instance, added to an existing strength in flexible provision offered in Africa with a venture into other regions. Liverpool continues a multi-year project of rebalancing, moving out of the flexible provision market and into overseas partnerships in Asia.

A word of caution on the sector level figures, however. The Oxford Brookes 2019-20 reclassification of nearly a quarter of a million Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) students to only include them after they have made an active decision to opt for a Brookes qualification distorts the overall figures substantially.

6 responses to “HESA Spring: where students come from and what they study?

  1. Hi….The county domicile by provider looks incorrect and missing provider(s)…if you look at West Midlands, Birmingham City Univerity isn’t listed but had enrolled approx. 12,000 students in 2020/1….can this be corrected please

    1. Same issue for Sheffield Hallam in South Yorkshire. And looks like Man Met too. I wonder if the largest provider in each region is being cut off for some reason? As both BCU and Man Met appear in the data when looking at South Yorkshire.

  2. really useful data and maps thanks – enjoy playing over the weekend – the comments above may be related to the overlaying of large unis in the same city or a visualisation bug, try the full screen maybe.

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