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Non-continuation summary: UK Performance Indicators

UK Performance Indicators: Non-Continuation Rates

This edition of the UK Performance Indicators will be the last release in this current form. A review of existing indicators will determine which measures will be migrated into core official statistics and open data published in 2023. Please see this news item and associated blog post for more information.

From 2020/21, HESA are no longer producing POLAR data for Northern Ireland. Low participation indicators based on POLAR4 data for providers in Northern Ireland have not been produced for this year.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic was declared by the World Health Organisation in March 2020, just over half way through the 2019/20 academic year. An insight brief has been published that analyses the impact of the pandemic on student data and trends across years of enrolments and qualifications across various characteristics. There are two known areas in which the pandemic has had some impact:

  • There is evidence to suggest that among a few providers, administrative hold-ups related to the pandemic resulted in significant numbers of qualifications awarded in 2019/20 not being reported. The impact of this under-reporting is believed to explain some of the 3% decrease in the number of qualifications achieved in 2019/20 compared with 2018/19, and the impact is most noticeable on the number of part-time qualifications awarded. Qualifications that were not reported in the 2019/20 academic year have carried over to 2020/21 and contributed to the 9% increase in the number of qualifications awarded in 2020/21.
  • In relation to classifications of first degrees and other awards, many providers issued public statements that a 'no detriment' approach would be adopted when it came to assessment in 2019/20. This typically ensured that students would be awarded a final grade no lower than the most recent provider assessment of their attainment.

Qualifications awarded are not used in the widening participation indicators, but are used in the non-continuation indicators.

The 2019/20 and 2020/21 data was collected during the COVID-19 pandemic. Exceptional guidance was issued to HE providers regarding a number of data fields within the collections to clarify HESA's expectations about how these fields should be treated in light of the pandemic.

Retention rates have remained fairly stable over the last few years. Between 2019/20 and 2020/21, an increase in the percentage of entrants continuing in HE after their first year can be observed across all cohorts (first degree, other undergraduates, young and mature). While this cannot be directly attributed to the pandemic there is often a trend for increased HE enrolments in periods of economic uncertainty and perhaps this behaviour extends to a desire to continue degree courses when other paths outside HE are less certain.

This summary contains overview information on: Non-continuation rates of full-time entrants and part-time entrants | Return after a year out | Projected outcomes for 2015/16 to 2020/21.

View the detailed non-continuation tables

The purpose of the indicators is to provide an objective measure of how the UK higher education (HE) sector is performing.

For any individual who enrols at an HE provider, there are a range of outcomes that the student may achieve after a particular time. In these tables we define a student to have continued if they obtain a qualification (not necessarily the one they were originally aiming for) or remain active at the same HE provider (even if studying a different course to the one originally started). See the non-continuation definition for more detail. 

Tables and charts included within this release include an academic year filter, allowing users to change between the current and previous years of data.

Non-continuation rates of full-time entrants after first year at HE provider

In table series T3, we highlight the proportion of full-time entrants who do not continue in higher education beyond their first year, with T3a showing the figures for first degree entrants, while T3d focuses on other undergraduate entrants.

Table D provides non-continuation rates over time by country of HE provider. For full-time first degree entrants, we see higher rates among mature students than young students.

Table D - Percentage of UK domiciled full-time entrants who did not leave within 50 days of commencement not continuing in HE after their first year by location of HE provider and academic year of entry

Academic years of entry 2014/15 to 2019/20


Focusing on the time trend (Chart 6), non-continuation rates among young, and mature, full-time first degree students have observed a further decrease in the percentage of 2019/20 entrants not continung in HE following the small decrease observed for 2018/19 entrants.

With regards to other undergraduate entrants, the non-continuation rate for young, full-time students in the UK has seen a general decrease over the last few years, while for mature entrants there have been fluctuations in the rate.

Chart 6 - Percentage of UK domiciled entrants who did not leave within 50 days of commencement not continuing in HE after their first year by academic year

Academic years 2014/15 to 2019/20


Chart 7 considers non-continuation rates across HE providers and plots both the indicator and benchmark. There is clearly a greater spread in the reported figures for mature when compared to young entrants. 

Chart 7 - Percentage of UK domiciled full-time entrants who did not leave within 50 days of commencement not continuing in HE after their first year

Academic years 2014/15 to 2019/20


Non-continuation rates of part-time entrants after second year at HE provider

Table T3e concentrates on non-continuation two years after entry for part-time first degree entrants. In Table E, we illustrate non-continuation rates for this group. Rates are slightly higher among those aged 30 and under than for those aged over 30. Chart 8 illustrates how the proportion varies within the sector.

Table E - Percentage of UK domiciled part-time first degree entrants who did not leave within 50 days of commencement not continuing in HE after their second year by location of HE provider and academic year of entry

Academic years of entry 2014/15 to 2018/19


Chart 8 - Percentage of UK domiciled part-time entrants who did not leave within 50 days of commencement not continuing two years following year of entry

Academic years 2014/15 to 2018/19


Return after a year out

Table T4 discloses the percentage of students who return to HE after a year out. The data provides a split to show the proportions who return to their initial provider, transfer to another provider and those who do not return to study.

Projected outcomes

The projected learning outcomes for full-time students starting their programme of study is supplied in Table T5. They give the outcomes that would be expected from starters at HE providers should these progression patterns continue in subsequent years.

The sector averages for the UK and its constituent countries are obtained by taking a weighted average of all the relevant HE provider values. We see from Table F and Chart 9 that between 2012/13 and 2018/19 the proportion of full-time first degree students expected to qualify with a degree from the HE provider at which they started in the UK was showing a slight decline. In 2019/20 the proportion expected to qualify has increased again. 

Table F - Projected outcomes of UK domiciled full-time first degree starters by location of HE provider and academic year of entry

Academic years of entry 1997/98 to 2019/20


Chart 9 - Projected learning outcomes of UK domiciled full-time first degree starters by academic year of entry

Academic years of entry 2001/02 to 2019/20


Chart 10 plots the projected percentage of starters expected to neither gain an award nor transfer for each provider alongside their benchmark for the last five academic years.

Chart 10 - Percentage of UK domiciled full-time first degree starters projected to neither obtain an award nor transfer

Academic years 2015/16 to 2019/20



Who classifies as a young entrant?

Young entrants are those aged under 21, whilst mature students are those aged 21 or over on 30 September of the academic year in which the student is recorded as commencing their studies. In Table T3e young entrants are those aged 30 and under, mature are those aged over 30.

How are the continuation categories defined?

Full details on how the non-continuation data has been produced can be found in the non-continuation technical document and projected outcomes technical document.

What is the POLAR methodology?

The POLAR classification places local areas into five quintiles, based on the higher education participation rates of 18 year olds in the locality. Those with the lowest percentages are placed into quintile 1 and are considered to be the most disadvantaged, with quintile 5 having the highest rates.

An individual is deemed to be from a low participation neighbourhood if their area falls into quintile 1.

Please note that the various ways in which low participation neighbourhoods have been defined over the years are not comparable and hence analysing time trends should be done using the same classification method.

For more information on POLAR, please refer to our widening participation definitions. The distinction between all methods can be found in the changes section.

The POLAR4 method was introduced in the Experimental Statistics: UK Performance Indicators release and has become the standard method for 2018/19 data onwards.

The NI Multiple Deprivation Measure and other NI geographical indicators are based on Crown Copyright and are reproduced with the permission of Land & Property Services under delegated authority from the Keeper of Public Records, © Crown copyright and database right 2020 NIMA MOU577.4

How are The Open University (OU) students dealt with?

Prior to 2014/15, all OU entrants were considered to be in England, where the university has its administrative centre. However, since 2014/15, entrants have been allocated to the country where their national centre is located.

Where can I find information on any merger or changes to HE providers?

We publish information on HE provider mergers and changes. Note that any new providers will have their non-continuation data suppressed until they have been in the sector for at least two years allowing for their students to be tracked across academic years.

Are there any additional notes on the Performance Indicators to accompany this publication?

For more information relating to the UK Performance Indicators, please view the data intelligence notes.

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