Where you find students depends on how you look for them

How do you find students in Census 2021 data? David Kernohan hasn't got the easy answer you were hoping for

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Where do students live?

It’s a deceptively simple question – and one that a big lump of ONS data released today unpacks for us neatly.

To know where students live, we need to be able to answer a couple of supplementary questions – and the primary issue here is “what is a higher education student”? For this reason, whenever I’ve looked at where students lived (for example, recently on fuel poverty, or on the old Covid-19 dashboards) I’ve used the fact that HESA know about them as a proxy.

Though we gain an exact answer to this question of what a student is, we lose definition on the actual variable we are looking for. Students, and providers, are not the best at providing accurate information about term time residence to HESA. Even assuming the data is correct at the December census point – students can and do move during each academic year. Students often move between academic years – and even if the provided address is correct for the first a first year of it may not be updated for later years.

ONS released a marvellous report on all this last year – highlighting this issue with HESA-sourced address data, and with other data on registration with a GP (students don’t always do that), and registering for council tax exemption (students don’t reliably keep that up to date either).

The obvious solution is to do a census. So last year, we did (viewers in Scotland had their own programming).

Doing a census

A census literally means that we ask everyone where they are – this includes all students, so we should have an accurate readout on where students were living on that fateful night in March 2021. Except, of course, that in March 2021 many students had not returned to their term-time address because of Covid-19. The official advice was to respond as if you were in your term time address – we don’t yet know if that is the case.

The reason we don’t know is there isn’t a question on the census that directly asks you if you are a current higher education student. There is a question about whether you are in full-time education, but that covers everything from schoolchildren, to further education, to higher education, to all kinds of other stuff I’ve not immediately thought of. It would probably be possible to triangulate that answer (Q8), with answers on term time addresses (Q7), and your primary activity given that you weren’t working (Q34), but with what is currently released we can’t yet do that.

Best fit

So, here are three proxies – presented by lower super output area (LSOA – a unit of analysis that covers between 400 and 1,200 households). I’ve presented each on the same map so you can see how the proxies differ – select your area of interest first and then compare the three. You can use the map controls to pan and zoom – these are not linked across maps so you’d have to do each individually.

Living in a communal establishment

A “communal establishment” might be a hall of residence (be that public or private). But as question A1 on the census provides, it could also be a boarding school, an armed forces base, a hospital, a care home, or a prison. So, though we do see areas where halls of residence are concentrated, we have to remember what else may be clustered nearby that could inflate the numbers.

Multiple-family household

As the description suggests this includes households where all residents are full time students – so this would apply to communal establishments and shared student houses. But, it would also capture residences where all residents are over 65, unless they are all a part of the same family, and boarding schools would also feature. It’s a bit better than the first option as you can see from comparing the two maps.

Address one year ago

Here we see term time addresses – so students (at all levels) and boarding school pupils. I’m not sure why we don’t ask if the place someone is living now is a student term-time address – the historic framing means we can also see recent graduates which does muddy the water a little.

Can we do better

This release of census data is one of many – there’s more data on education and on housing in January next year, area profiles and information on the labour market (that might include data on students) will be here towards the back end of 2022.

It would be possible to use some intelligent filtering across this (and by age) to pinpoint students with a reasonable degree of access – but for that we need to wait for Nomis to get updated. So for now, we still don’t know where students are. Perhaps we never will?




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