The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on 2021/22 Student data
For much of the 2020/21 academic year, news – both in the UK and around the world – was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although restrictions eased in the summer of 2020, autumn was marked by new restrictions of varying levels of severity, including local lockdowns in each of the four nations of the UK, and further restrictions came into force in January 2021. For the UK higher education sector, restrictions aimed at controlling the spread of COVID changed almost every aspect of the student experience, from accommodation to access to campus resources to the format of teaching and examination.
Following the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations in the first half of 2021, the 2021/22 academic year corresponded with the beginning of a less acute phase of the pandemic. Although some restrictions remained in place, particularly with regard to international travel, many of the restrictions on daily life which coloured the 2020/21 academic year had been lifted by autumn 2021; groups could gather indoors, shops and hospitality venues were open, and fully vaccinated contacts of positive COVID cases were no longer required by law to self-isolate. The loosening of restrictions in society as a whole corresponded with a gradual return to some pre-pandemic norms in the higher education sector. While some teaching continued to be delivered online, the year also saw the return of much face-to-face teaching, as well as the first in-person exams for many courses since the start of the pandemic.
While the COVID-19 pandemic was still likely to be an important factor in the lives of higher education students during the 2021/22 academic year, other factors gained – or regained – prominence over the course of the year. For example, changes in fees following the UK’s departure from the European Union and the introduction of the new Graduate Route visa scheme are both likely to have had an effect on students’ decisions. As we embarked on our investigation of the potential impacts of the pandemic on the 2021/22 Student data, then, it was clear that we would have to consider the extent to which effects of the pandemic could be separated from the effects of other world events.
Looking at the 2021/22 Student data, we see the following changes since the 2020/21 academic year:
- A decrease in EU enrolment coupled with an increase in non-EU international enrolment, which is likely to reflect both the end of home fee eligibility for EU students and the introduction of the Graduate route visa scheme.
- A decrease – although not to pre-pandemic numbers – in the number of students being awarded first class honours, following a surge in high grades during the 2019/20 and 2020/21 academic years.
- An increase in students studying abroad as pandemic-era travel restrictions were lifted.
- A decrease – although not to pre-pandemic levels – in students living in their parents’ or guardians’ home, following an increase during the height of the pandemic.
While some of these changes can sensibly be interpreted in terms of the pandemic – either its ongoing effect on the student experience or a gradual return to normality after two years of restrictions – others seem more likely to reflect other factors. Even where a pandemic impact seems likely, other long-term trends in degree classifications and student behaviour can make it difficult to identify the specific effect of COVID-19.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, we have been watching for potential impacts of the pandemic on our data. We have carried out analyses of both Graduate Outcomes and Student data, starting with the 2018/19 Graduate Outcomes data and continuing with the 2019/20 Graduate Outcomes and 2020/21 Student data. In each case, while we have seen some changes in the data which could reflect the impact of the pandemic, the changes we have seen have always been small. It has been difficult to distinguish potential impacts of the pandemic from changes caused by other factors or from the variation which we would expect between ‘normal’ years, and this will only grow more challenging as time goes on and other world events increasingly vie for prominence with COVID-19.
Having previously found few changes in the data that could be firmly attributed to the pandemic, we determined that the current year’s statistical outputs – that is, the 2021/22 Student data and the 2020/21 Graduate Outcomes data – would be the last for which we would produce full insight briefs on the impacts of COVID-19. In future years, we will instead consider COVID-19 amongst the other contextual factors which may have an impact on our data.
In light of our decision to wind down the series of COVID-19 insight briefs, our goal for the analysis of the 2021/22 Student data was to revisit the hypotheses which we examined last year, looking again at student numbers, qualifiers and degree classifications, location of study, and student accommodation. Although last year’s insight brief also covered continuation rates, we have taken the decision not to refer to continuation rates in this year’s insight brief, following the 2022 discontinuation of the UK Performance Indicators publication which included non-continuation measures. Discussions about the most appropriate form for any future Jisc publication of statistics on continuation rates are ongoing; until those discussions are resolved, however, it would be inappropriate to comment on statistics that are not currently published.
As before, the list of areas covered by our investigation into the potential impacts of the pandemic is not an exhaustive one. In addition to non-continuation, we remain aware that there is policy interest in the potential impact of the pandemic on subject choice. Although we are not yet ready to publish time series data on subject of study spanning the transition in the 2019/20 academic year from the JACS subject coding system to HECoS, we are engaged in an ongoing programme of work to determine the suitability of using the Common Aggregation Hierarchy (CAH) to bridge the gap between JACS and HECoS. When this work is complete, it may possible to revisit the question of subject choice during the pandemic years.
On the whole, we saw few clear pandemic effects in the 2020/21 data, but in several cases we noted that effects might appear in subsequent years which would justify further analysis. 2021/22 was the third academic year in which COVID-19 was circulating; qualifiers finishing three-year degrees at the end of the 2021/22 academic year, for example, will have had only six months of higher education before the start of the pandemic. It seemed possible that the increasing duration of the pandemic would have caused impacts on the 2021/22 data which were not yet visible in earlier years. We therefore felt it was important to conduct one more full analysis of the potential impacts of the pandemic before bringing our series on COVID-19 to a close.
What do we see in the 2021/22 Student data?
In the following sections of this insight brief, I will discuss the results of our investigations into the Student data for the 2021/22 academic year. In each case, I will discuss the extent to which any trends in the data may or may not be attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as any other contextual factors which may have driven changes in the data since 2020/21.
In the first months of the pandemic, there was speculation that students would be hesitant to embark on courses of higher education when faced with the joint prospect of further lockdowns and online learning in place of in-person lectures and classes. Although the 2020/21 academic year was marked by successive lockdowns, and much teaching and assessment taking place online, the predicted collapse in student numbers did not occur. In fact, first year student enrolments increased by approximately 10% between the 2019/20 and 2020/21 academic years, driven by a mix of UK-based first degree students and students from the UK and abroad beginning taught postgraduate courses.
Looking at the first year enrolment data for the 2021/22 academic year, we see that first year numbers have increased by 2% since 2020/21. That figure varies considerably by level of study (see Statistical Bulletin Figure 1 below); first year first degree and other undergraduate enrolments are each down by 2% since 2020/21, postgraduate research enrolments are down by 7%, and postgraduate taught enrolments are up by 10%. Across the board, numbers of first year students are still higher than they were at the start of the 2019/20 academic year, before the start of the pandemic, but the increases seen in 2020/21 have only been repeated in the case of taught postgraduate students.
When we consider potential explanations for the apparent slowdown in enrolment at some levels whilst postgraduate taught enrolments continue to increase rapidly, it is helpful if we look at where first year students were coming from in the 2021/22 academic year (see Figure A below). The number of first year students coming from the EU has gone down by 53% since 2020/21, while the number of non-EU international first year students has gone up by 32%, and the number of UK first year students has decreased very slightly, by 2%. When considering both level of study and domicile, the decline in EU enrolments can be seen across all levels of study, while the increase in non-EU enrolments is driven primarily by taught postgraduate students. Amongst UK-based first years, we see a 1% increase in first degree students, a 5% decrease in other undergraduate students, and 7% decreases in both taught and research postgraduate students.
These changes are likely to reflect a mix of contextual factors, not all of which can be connected to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021/22 academic year was the first for which EU students were required to pay full international fees, and this is likely to be reflected both in the increase in EU enrolment in 2020/21 – the last year for which EU students could pay home fees – and the sharp decline following the fee increase in 2021/22. Also in 2021, the new Graduate route visa scheme came into effect, under which graduates from UK higher education are eligible to apply for a two- or three-year visa (depending on level of study) to stay in the UK to work or look for work at any skill level. The rollout of this new visa route may have helped to make the UK an attractive destination for new international students in the 2021/22 academic year, contributing to the increases which we see in non-EU international enrolment.
When we look at UK students, a slightly different set of contextual factors come into play. The slight increase in UK first degree enrolments is consistent with data from UCAS on the 2021 application cycle, which shows a 1% increase in acceptances for UK higher education applicants. This slight increase is likely to reflect both changing demographics, with the number of UK 18-year-olds continuing to rise, and the steady increase in the young higher education participation rate. The decrease which we see in postgraduate enrolments following a peak in 2020/21 may reflect an increase in confidence in the graduate job market after the uncertainty of the early months of the pandemic. In the second half of the 2020/21 academic year, when most postgraduate applications are made, pandemic restrictions were easing and there were some signs of increasing graduate recruitment. Although the world was still a long way from its pre-pandemic state, these signs of recovery may have encouraged some graduates who might have considered postgraduate study instead to go directly into the workforce.
Qualifiers and degree classifications
The 2020/21 academic year saw a 6% rise in the number of first degree qualifications awarded, following a drop in the number of qualifications recorded at the end of the 2019/20 academic year due to administrative delays. The increase in 2020/21 can be explained by the fact that qualifications earned but not recorded in 2019/20 were subsequently submitted to HESA for inclusion in the 2020/21 Student record. The number of first degree qualifiers for 2021/22 is down 2% when compared with the 2020/21 data, but is still higher than the number recorded in 2018/19, the last year with pre-pandemic data on qualifiers (see Statistical Bulletin Figure 15 below). The 2021/22 data on first degree qualifiers seems therefore to have reverted to the pattern which was visible before the pandemic, in which the number of qualifiers increased year-on-year in line with increasing student numbers. We see a similar pattern with taught postgraduate qualifications, but with the larger increases of the last two years reflecting larger increases in taught postgraduate student numbers.
The 2021/22 data on qualifiers still contains a higher number of qualifications with an end date in a previous academic year, that is, qualifications which seem to have been recorded late, than was typical in previous years. The proportion of affected qualifications remains small, with just under 3% of the first degree qualifications recorded in 2021/22 having an end date in a previous academic year, but it represents a notable increase since before the pandemic, when just under 1% of first degrees completed in a typical year would be recorded late. It is not entirely clear what has driven this increase; it may be the case that the administrative delays which marked the beginning of the pandemic persisted further into the 2020/21 academic year than previously thought. Given that 2021/22 was the last legacy Student data collection before the rollout of Data Futures, some providers may also have made an extra effort to include any outstanding qualifications.
Degree classifications are an area of perennial policy interest, and they have received additional scrutiny since the move to online examinations in the spring of 2020. The combination of online examinations and ‘no detriment’ policies designed to keep students from being disadvantaged by the disruption caused by the start of the pandemic correlated with a sharp increase in the percentage of students awarded first class degrees at the end of the 2019/20 academic year (see Statistical Bulletin Figure 16 below). Although most blanket ‘no detriment’ policies were discontinued for the 2020/21 academic year, online examinations continued, and many providers instituted policies to mitigate against the ongoing difficulties faced by students. Consequently, although the proportion of first class degrees rose only very slightly between 2019/20 and 2020/21, the proportion in 2020/21 was still far higher than the pre-pandemic baseline.
The number of students awarded first class degrees in 2021/22 decreased by 14% when compared with 2020/21. This decrease is likely to reflect a mix of circumstances in the 2021/22 academic year. On the one hand, many of the examinations which were moved online during the first two years of the pandemic returned to their previous, in-person format for the 2021/22 academic year, and some students may have struggled to achieve the marks which they might have achieved in an online examination with, for example, more time or the permission to use certain reference materials. On the other hand, providers were under pressure to ensure that the high grades awarded during the first years of the pandemic did not become a permanent fixture of UK higher education. The Office for Students issued guidance to this effect in May 2022, and in July 2022 Universities UK announced a commitment on the part of universities in England to return to pre-pandemic levels of firsts and 2.1s by 2023, as part of a UK-wide framework for strengthening internal processes relating to degree classification.
While both the number and the proportion of first class degrees awarded in 2021/22 remain higher than they were in 2018/19, before the start of the pandemic, results from 2021/22 suggest a return to the trend which was apparent before the pandemic. On the whole, numbers of first class degrees still appear to be increasing over time, but 2021/22 counteracts the sharp increase which we saw in 2019/20.
Location of study
Although some restrictions on international travel remained in place throughout autumn 2021, the 2021/22 academic year was marked by increased freedom of movement when compared with earlier phases of the pandemic. More learning could take place face-to-face, and it was also possible for some study abroad programmes and work placements to take place in person after being conducted online in the previous year. One of the goals of this year’s investigation was to determine the extent to which the loosening of restrictions is reflected in where and how students studied in the 2021/22 academic year.
After the pandemic broke out, HESA issued a range of exceptional guidance to providers to help them submit their data returns under the changed circumstances of the pandemic without incurring undue burden, and some of this exceptional guidance remained in place for the 2021/22 academic year. As was the case in the previous academic year, providers were instructed to record students who would normally have been studying in person but were studying online or in a hybrid format due to the pandemic as attending in person at the provider; similarly, providers were instructed to record students participating in remote study abroad programmes or work placements as they would if those programmes were taking place in person. Although it seems likely that this guidance will not have been needed as frequently in 2021/22 as it was in the previous year, it remains the case that we cannot be certain that students’ recorded location of study represents their physical location during the academic year.
Despite these limitations, we see some notable changes in the 2021/22 data. Firstly, we see an increase in the number of students enrolled in UK-based distance learning programmes. Although it is possible that the pandemic raised public awareness of the opportunities presented by distance learning, it may also be the case that, following the shift to online learning on an emergency basis at the start of the pandemic, more courses have been deliberately offered online in subsequent years. At the same time, the increase in distance learning which we see in 2021/22 is part of a longer-term trend which predates the pandemic, and COVID-19 is therefore only likely to provide part of the explanation.
We also see substantial increases in the number of students studying abroad for some or all of the 2021/22 academic year, following a decrease in the previous year. The number of students abroad for a portion of the 2021/22 academic year was up 107% on 2020/21, and the number abroad for the whole year was up 80%. Some students who might otherwise have studied abroad during the 2020/21 academic year may been able to postpone their time abroad until the following academic year, by which point travel restrictions were gradually being lifted. It is also possible – though purely speculative – that two years of restrictions on travel will have increased student interest in studying abroad once doing so was possible again.
Last year, when we saw a decrease in students studying abroad, we noted that, although the pandemic was likely to have been one factor, other factors, such the UK’s withdrawal from the Erasmus scheme, the wider repercussions of Brexit, and the long-term, ongoing decline in numbers studying modern languages, were also likely to have played a part. This year, the sharp increase which we see in students studying abroad supports the possibility that last year’s particularly sharp decrease was at least in part due to the pandemic. At the same time, the number of students who studied abroad in 2021/22 was still lower than the number of students who studied abroad in the last pre-pandemic academic year. While some of the pandemic-related disruption to student movement seems to have abated, the longer-term decline in students studying abroad – which predates the COVID-19 pandemic – has not necessarily been halted
Issues related to housing – whether that means negotiating shared expectations with flatmates, arranging repairs with a landlord, or carving out study space in a family home – are always an important part of the student experience. The restrictions put in place to control the spread of COVID-19, however, threw into sharper relief questions about where students live and what kinds of housing they occupy. When we examined 2020/21 data last year to see whether we could identify any impacts of the pandemic on students’ term-time accommodation, we saw some minor shifts which could plausibly be explained in terms of the pandemic, but very little that was out of line with normal year-on-year variation.
Looking at the data on term-time accommodation for the 2021/22 academic year, we see that some of the changes which we saw in 2020/21 have switched direction in 2021/22. Where in 2020/21 we saw a 20% increase in the number of students living in the home of their parent(s) or guardian(s), in 2021/22 we see a 6% decrease in this category. Conversely, we see an increase in students living in both private halls and provider-maintained accommodation in 2021/22, both categories of housing which saw a decrease in the 2020/21 academic year. We also see a 14% decrease in students whose term-time accommodation is listed as ‘not known’, following a 59% increase in this category in the previous year.
While the pandemic is likely to have played a role in some of these shifts, it is unlikely to be the only explanation. The number of students living in the home of their parent(s) or guardian(s) has been increasingly steadily since before the pandemic. Although we see a decrease in this number for 2021/22, possibly representing students moving away from the family home once they felt that the risk of lockdown had passed, the number of students living in their family homes is still higher than the pre-pandemic baseline, suggesting that other factors are at play. Similarly, while the increase in students living in private halls may represent an increased willingness to live in larger groups as rules surrounding household isolation were lifted, it also represents the continuation of a longer-term trend, which seems only briefly to have been interrupted in the 2020/21 academic year.
In the 2020/21 data, we also noted an unusual increase in the number of first-year students listed as ‘not in attendance at the provider’; although we speculated that this could represent students studying with partner institutions or students who were studying remotely due to the pandemic and had never yet been in residence at their provider, we could not be sure what was driving the increase. In the 2021/22 data, however, the number of first-year students ‘not in attendance at the provider’ is down 41% on 2020/21; while the number of first-year students ‘not in attendance at the provider’ is still above the pre-pandemic baseline, this decrease suggests a move towards more normal rates and recording practices. Looking at the whole student population, we see a 15% increase in students ‘not in attendance at the provider’ in 2021/22, following a 22% decrease in 2020/21; this is as we would expect in a year with more students studying abroad or taking part in industrial placements.
The changes which we see in term-time accommodation data for the 2021/22 academic year, while sometimes large in percentage terms, are for the most part small in terms of the number of students represented; the largest changes in percentage terms are in ‘not known’ and ‘not in attendance at the provider’, both categories containing relatively few students. By and large, the changes which we see represent a return to or a continuation of pre-pandemic patterns in student accommodation. To the extent that COVID-19 may have had an impact on student accommodation choices in 2020/21, that impact does not seem to have extended into the 2021/22 academic year.
Where we see changes in the 2021/22 Student data when compared with the data for 2020/21, we generally see a levelling off or reverse of the changes which we saw in 2020/21. Even in the 2020/21 academic year, we saw only minor deviations from pre-pandemic data, and it seems that those deviations have been reversed in the 2021/22 data, which shows a decrease in students living in the homes of their parent(s) or guardian(s), an increase in students studying abroad, and a reduction in the number of students awarded first class degrees. In all these cases, we see a return to trends which were in place before the pandemic. Thus the number of students living in the home of their parent(s) or guardian(s), while lower than the number for 2020/21, is still higher than the number for 2019/20; similarly, this year’s increased number of students studying abroad is still below the figure for 2019/20, while the number of students awarded first class honours, although down from 2020/21, still fits with the long-term increase in first class degrees which was visible before the start of the pandemic.
Although it seems likely that the COVID-19 pandemic – or the loosening of restrictions put in place during the height of the pandemic – may have played a role in some of the differences between the 2021/22 data and data from the previous year, the most striking change which we see in this year’s Student data can best be explained without reference to the pandemic. The striking shifts in domicile which we see in the 2021/22 student population seem most likely to be caused by the change in fee status for EU students in conjunction with the introduction of the new Graduate Route visa scheme; these policy changes together offer a plausible explanation both for the decrease which we see in EU enrolment and for the increase which we see in other international postgraduate students.
Thus, while COVID-19 is still likely to be a factor in students’ educational experience – indeed, as time goes by, more and more of students’ education will have taken place since the outbreak of the pandemic – other events and policy changes are increasingly likely to play an important role as the acute phase of the pandemic recedes further into the past. Even at the height of the pandemic, when a range of higher education policies were put in place in direct response to COVID-19, it was difficult to distinguish between effects of the pandemic, effects of other factors, and the variation which we would expect between normal years of data. This will become increasingly difficult over time; looking ahead to the 2022/23 academic year, we may expect our data also to reflect, along with changes brought about by the pandemic, an unstable geopolitical climate, the rising cost of living, and pressures on the student housing market, to name just a few possibilities. While we will continue to monitor the potential impacts of the pandemic on the data we collect, in future years it will be most appropriate to consider COVID-19 as one of many factors with a potential impact on our data.
 For further information on the planned investigation into CAH, see the notes from the 2021/22 Student Statistical Bulletin: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/19-01-2023/sb265-higher-education-student-st...
 See, for example, this March 2020 blogpost, in which Jim Dickinson of WonkHE discusses the considerations for students thinking about whether to enrol in September 2020: https://wonkhe.com/blogs/is-it-in-students-interests-to-enrol-in-september/
 Department for Education. 2021. New eligibility rules for home fee status and student finance for the 2021/22 academic year. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1009789/EU_Exit_Student_Finance_Policy_-_Aug_21.pdf
 Home Office. 2021. The points-based immigration system: The Graduate immigration route. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1006443/Graduate_Immigration_Route_guide__July_2021_.pdf
 UCAS. 2022. UCAS End of Cycle 2021: Strong demand for UK HE amidst global pandemic. https://www.ucas.com/corporate/news-and-key-documents/news/ucas-end-cycle-2021-strong-demand-uk-he-amidst-global-pandemic
 See Tristram Hooley writing in May 2021 on the Prospects Luminate blog: https://luminate.prospects.ac.uk/are-these-the-green-shoots-of-recovery
 Some providers refer to a mix of in-person and online examinations for the 2021/22 academic year; see, for example, 2021/22 assessment guidance from the University of Bristol (http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/academic-quality/documents/taught-code/annexes/university-examination-regulations-21-22.pdf) and Buckinghamshire New University (https://www.bucks.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2021-11/Exam%20Student%20Handbook%202021-22.pdf).
 Office for Students. 2022. ‘Universities must not allow “a decade of grade inflation to be baked into the system”’. https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/press-and-media/universities-must-not-allow-a-decade-of-grade-inflation-to-be-baked-into-the-system/
Universities UK. 2022. ‘After the pandemic: Our commitment to degree classifications’. https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/what-we-do/policy-and-research/publications/after-pandemic-our-commitment-degree