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Widening participation summary: UK Performance Indicators

UK Performance Indicators: Widening Participation

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.

This summary contains overview information on: State school marker | Low participation neighbourhoods | Disabled Students' Allowance for 2015/16 and 2020/21.

View the detailed widening participation tables

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

Two key areas are covered, with the first of these being widening participation. This is the focus of this summary, which explores the proportion of entrants from disadvantaged backgrounds or in receipt of Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). Future publications this year will look at student retention, UK domiciled undergraduate entrants to HE providers.

We examine two potential measures of background, namely the state school marker and the POLAR4 low participation indicator.

State school marker

Table series T1 provides the proportion of young entrants to each UK HE provider that are from state schools or colleges.

The three tables in T1 split the population by whether they are on a first degree or other undergraduate course, as well as providing the overall young full-time undergraduate entrant picture.

In Table A below, we provide a time-series which documents how the percentage of young full-time first degree entrants from state schools or colleges has changed over time across the four nations. Chart 1 illustrates the pattern in the UK overall, whilst Chart 2 demonstrates how the proportion varies within the HE sector plotting each provider's indicator and benchmark.

Additional information on how the state school marker is generated is provided at the end of this publication.

Table A - Percentage of UK domiciled young full-time first degree entrants who did not leave within 50 days of commencement from state schools by location of HE provider and academic year

Academic years 2015/16 to 2020/21


Chart 1 - Percentage of UK domiciled young full-time first degree entrants who did not leave within 50 days of commencement from state schools by region of domicile and academic year

Academic years 2015/16 to 2020/21


Chart 2 - Percentage of UK domiciled young full-time first degree entrants who did not leave within 50 days of commencement from state schools by HE provider

Academic years 2015/16 to 2020/21


Low participation neighbourhoods

Table series T1 and T2 include data on students from low participation neighbourhoods covering both young and mature entrants on full-time and part-time undergraduate courses.

The definition of a low participation neighbourhood in 2018/19 is based on POLAR4 however, it has been run back to 2015/16 for comparison purposes.

Table B shows how the proportion of this group of students has evolved in the various UK countries. Low participation data is not produced for HE providers in Scotland and are thus not included in these tables and charts. From 2020/21, low participation data for Northern Ireland is also excluded from this table. The UK time series should be treated with caution as its based on a different cohort of students prior to 2020/21. The table can be filtered by age, mode and level of study.

Chart 3 supplies the time-series data for different cohorts of entrants in the UK overall. Chart 4 displays the disparities in the percentages from such groups across HE providers and shows their benchmark plotted alongside their indicator.

Among young full-time first degree entrants, the percentages from low participation neighbourhoods according to the POLAR4 method has steadily risen over time across the UK.

With regards to part-time undergraduate entrants, a clear discrepancy is seen in the proportion from low participation neighbourhoods by age, with higher percentages reported for young students.

Table B - Percentage of UK domiciled entrants who did not leave within 50 days of commencement from low participation neighbourhoods (LPN) by location of HE provider, academic year, age of entrants, mode and level of study

Academic years 2015/16 to 2020/21


UK totals in Table B and Chart 3 do not include Northern Ireland in 2020/21. The time series prior to 2020/21 does include Northern Ireland and therefore UK totals in 2020/21 are not directly comparable to earlier years.

Chart 3 - Percentage of UK domiciled entrants who did not leave within 50 days of commencement from low participation neighbourhoods by academic year

Academic years 2015/16 to 2020/21


Chart 4 - Percentage of UK domiciled young full-time first degree entrants who did not leave within 50 days of commencement from low participation neighbourhoods (using POLAR4) by HE provider and academic year

Academic years 2015/16 to 2020/21


Disabled Students' Allowance

Here, we define a disabled student as one in receipt of DSA. Table T7 provides a breakdown by HE provider and Table C below gives sector level time trends for the proportion of DSA students for each country by mode of study.

Table C - Percentage of UK domiciled students in receipt of Disabled Students' Allowance by location of HE provider, academic year, mode and level of study

Academic years 2015/16 to 2020/21


View the detailed widening participation tables



Are figures for the proportion of student entrants from state schools or colleges comparable over time?

Our figures do not factor in changes that may have occurred to the underlying population (e.g. how the percentage of secondary school pupils attending state schools or colleges has evolved in the UK over time).

Secondly, there has been a change in the way the state school marker is created. For new entrants from 2014/15, the last provider attended field we collect (PREVINST) must contain a valid UK Provider Reference Number (the unique identifier allocated to each provider) or a valid generic code (see coding manual for further details), rather than historic UCAS, department and HESA school codes.

These have been mapped to school type and grouped to form the state school marker. In the case of an unknown or invalid PREVINST code, students have been excluded from the formation of the indicator. This alteration may have an impact on the quality of the school type data.

For these reasons, caution must be exercised when analysing the time series data.

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.

How do you define a state school or college?

This covers all schools and colleges (including further education colleges and publicly funded HE providers) that are not classed as independent.

Why is the state school marker so high for Northern Ireland?

In Northern Ireland, all schools are categorised as state in the lookup file used to produce the widening participation indicators. Although there are fee paying schools, the schools also receive some state funding.

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. Please note from January 2022 that the coverage for POLAR data excludes providers in Northern Ireland in addition to Scotland. For more information please see 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 2021 NIMA MOU577.4

Why is there no data for the proportion of entrants from low participation neighbourhoods in Northern Ireland and Scotland?

The relatively high (in UK terms) participation rate in Scotland coupled with the very high proportion of HE that occurs in further education colleges means that the figures for Scottish HE providers could, when viewed in isolation, misrepresent their contribution to widening participation. Therefore, low participation data has not been produced for HE providers in Scotland. Similarly high participation rates are also observed in Northern Ireland where the Department for the Economy (Northern Ireland) recommend the use of the Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure (NIMDM) Quintiles as a more representative measure of educational disadvantage among these students. Although Northern Ireland data has historically been included in POLAR figures published by HESA, recognising the possibility for misrepresentation of this data coupled with the availability of NIMDM as an alternative in some HESA published tables from January 2019, HESA have removed Northern Ireland data from POLAR figures in UKPIs from January 2022. More information is provided in the data intelligence notes.

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.

DSA data for the OU has been excluded for the academic years 2007/08 and 2008/09, due to changes introduced by HESA to the method of apportioning full-time equivalent between years which has affected the count of OU part-time students. In 2014/15, the OU under-reported the number of students in receipt of DSA in England and Wales. From 2017/18, the OU are included in benchmarks and totals. 

See data intelligence notes for further details.

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

These can be found in the mergers and changes section.

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

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

What changes have occurred to DSA?

Changes to the Disabled Students' Allowance administered through Student Finance England took effect in the academic years 2015/16 and 2016/17. These changes rebalanced responsibility for supporting disabled students, with HE providers providing certain aspects of disability related support previously funded via the DSAs, including funding to support specialist equipment and accommodation costs. Further details have been published on the changes to DSA. As a result of these changes, the Performance Indicator reported in Table T7 - Participation of UK domiciled students in higher education who are in receipt of Disabled Students' Allowance for the 2016/17 cohort - is not consistent with previous years.

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