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Changes in methodologies - Students 2000/01

Changes in methodologies for counting students from 2000/01 onwards

Regular users of HESA data will be aware of the ‘population’ definitions used in counts of students and staff. These involve the application of a set of restriction criteria to enable meaningful statistical counts to be derived from the extensive range of raw data collected from higher education institutions. In the case of counts of students, HESA defined a ‘standard HE population’ some years ago that represented a count of active students as at 1 December in each academic year. This had the benefit of providing a straightforward means of deriving consistent counts of students and has been the basis of the majority of student data published and released by HESA up until now. However, the changing pattern of higher education provision, and in particular the increasing trend towards non-traditional academic year patterns (traditional academic year patterns being those in which the student commences each year of their course in September/October and completes the year in May/June/July) has lead some to question whether the existing population definitions were producing a truly representative picture of the higher education sector. HESA has therefore conducted a review of its population definitions, in collaboration with UK education departments and HE funding councils. This review concluded that whilst the ‘standard HE population’ as at 1 December provided reliable and representative counts of students on programmes following traditional academic year patterns, the coverage of students on non-traditional academic year patterns and short courses could be significantly improved. This has resulted in the re-definition of many of HESA’s existing populations, changes which come into effect from 2000/01 data onwards, including the data in this volume. The purpose of this section is to inform readers of the nature of the changes in population definitions, and to provide a quantitative overview of their effects.

There are two main changes to the basis for counting students:

  1. The previous count as at 1 December in each reporting year has been replaced (in HESA statistical publications) by a count of students (or more accurately students registered for a qualification aim- ‘registrations’) across the entire reporting year – the ‘standard registration population (SRP)’.

    This population splits the student experience into ‘years of programme of study’; the first year of which is deemed to start on the commencement date of the programme with second, and subsequent years, starting on, or near, the anniversary of that date. Registrations are counted once for each ‘year of programme of study’. Short course registrations are counted in the ‘standard registration population’ regardless of whether they are active on the 1 December of the reporting period. As with the previous standard population, dormant students, postdoctoral students and students studying for the whole of their programme of study outside the UK are all excluded from this population.

  2. Visiting and incoming exchange students from overseas have been excluded from student populations. This is due to the fact that there had previously been an element of double-counting, with both incoming and outgoing exchange students being counted.

An additional change which necessarily accompanies the move to the ‘standard registration population’ is in the definition of first year students. Whilst previously the definition of first years was all those commencing programmes in the twelve months prior to the 1 December in the reporting period (i.e. a calendar year), this is not appropriate when using the ‘standard registration population’. Therefore, the definition has been modified to include all those commencing their programmes within the academic year.

There are also changes in the population counting students obtaining qualifications – the ‘HESA qualifications obtained population’. These are discussed later in the section.

Table i shows the total counts of student registrations based upon the previous ‘standard HE population’ and the new ‘standard registration population’, with the percentage change in each category. It should be borne in mind when looking at this table that the percentage change figures represent the compound effect of the two major changes having opposing influences, i.e. the change from a 1 December count to an entire year count that will increase the numbers, and the exclusion of visiting and incoming exchange students that will cause decreases.

Please see Table i

As can be seen from the table, the overall increase in the number of students at both higher and further education level in the UK is 6.4%. Within this overall change the reader should note the range of percentage change figures, from an overall drop of 3.8% for the full-time other undergraduate category, through to the 73% increase for the part-time further education level category.

The drop in numbers for full-time other undergraduate can be explained by the fact that in this case the exclusion of incoming exchange students outweighs any increase caused by the move to an entire year count. This may seem a rather unusual effect in the context of the overall pattern of increased counts, but the reason behind it is simple. Higher education institutions tend to record a UK qualification aim of undergraduate credit for those overseas exchange students for whom the period of study in the UK contributes towards their (predominantly undergraduate level) qualification aims in their home country. Undergraduate credits are classified within the ‘other undergraduate’ category for analysis purposes of HESA data. This generates a large concentration of incoming exchange students within the other undergraduate level.

The change in numbers for full-time first degree is a mere 0.7%. This reflects the assessment that the previous 1 December ‘standard HE population’ provided good coverage of students on ‘traditional’ higher education programmes; the move to a ‘standard registration population’ providing little additional coverage.

The much larger increase of almost 73% in the part-time further education level category can be accounted for by the prevalence of short courses and those following non-traditional academic year patterns; areas which were highlighted as weaknesses in coverage of the previous ‘standard HE population’.

Please see Table ii

Table ii focuses on the effect of length of programme in the move to the ‘standard registration population’ for HE level students only. As can be seen from this table, short courses show the greatest change in moving to the new population. One of the disadvantages of the previous ‘standard HE population’ was that students on short courses were only counted if their programme coincided with the 1 December snapshot date. The new ‘standard registration population’ clearly shows an improvement in such coverage.

Please see Table iii

Table iii shows the change in student counts split by UK and world region of domicile. The decreases in student numbers from the European Union and North America reflect the relatively large proportions of visiting and exchange students from these regions (some 14% of students from the European Union were recorded as visiting and exchange students under the former 1 December standard population, and 27% of students from the North America region. This compares to only 9% overall for overseas domiciled students).

The changes in overseas student numbers resulting from the change in population definitions noted in Table iii will also include further variation by level of study, given that there is an existing convention for the classification of ‘qualification aims’ for visiting and exchange students. We address this in Table iv below.

Please see Table iv

The reader may note from this table that the largest percentage changes are centred in the ‘other undergraduate’ categories. This results from the aforementioned convention in the HESA Student Record whereby the majority of visiting and exchange students from overseas, for whom the period of study in the UK contributes toward their qualification in their home country, will be classified as studying for an ‘undergraduate credit’. Also by convention, such qualification aims are classed within the ‘other undergraduate’ level of study, for the purposes of published statistics.

Finally we address the issue of the changes in the HESA ‘qualification obtained population’. Two main changes are worthy of note:

  1. Qualifications awarded from dormant status which were previously excluded from the qualifications obtained population are now included.

    A number of qualifications are awarded to students during periods in which they have been classed by their HE institution as ‘dormant’, i.e. not actively studying for their qualification aim. Awards from dormant status may happen when there is an administrative delay in the award of the qualification following completion of the programme of study; such delay resulting in an award being made in the academic year following the final academic year of actual study. Examples of this may include doctorates, where there can be a delay between the submission of a final thesis and the actual award following the viva examination. There are also some other cases in which awards from dormant status may be recorded, including delays in award due to late-payment of tuition fees (or other fees such as accommodation) or appeal procedures when there is a dispute about an award. Such cases are likely to be the exception rather than the norm however.

  2. Qualifications awarded to visiting and incoming exchange students are excluded from the population. This is consistent with their exclusion from the ‘standard registration population’.

Table v looks at the quantitative effects of these changes.

Please see Table v

As can be seen from the table, the largest percentage change falls within the doctorate category. This highlights the aforementioned circumstance in which the administrative delay between submission of final theses and the arrangement of the viva examinations can result in the actual award being made in the academic year following the final year of study. The large changes in ‘other higher degrees’ and ‘other postgraduate’ categories are also probably examples of the same effect.

In conclusion, it is hoped that the quantitative comparisons above will provide the reader with a sufficient overview to identify the particular areas within student data that will be affected by the change in population counting definitions. It is recognised that in some cases the changes resulting from the new populations are relatively marked, and it is appreciated that time series comparisons with counts appearing in previous editions of this volume will inevitably be subject to discontinuity. However, it is felt strongly that the changes provide a much more representative statistical picture of UK higher education in the 21st century.

HESA cannot accept responsibility for any inferences or conclusions derived from the data by third parties.