The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on 2020/21 Student data
The COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on 11 March 2020, roughly two thirds of the way through the 2019/20 academic year.
Although the coronavirus restrictions in effect in the UK from March 2020 had a profound impact on teaching, assessment, and all other aspects of the student experience during the final portion of the 2019/20 academic year, not all of those changes are visible in the 2019/20 Student data, since most student enrolment for the year had already taken place months before the pandemic began. Where the effects of the pandemic did appear in the 2019/20 Student data was in the area of qualifications; there were administrative delays in the reporting of some qualifiers, and there was also an increase in the proportion of first class degrees, linked to the ‘no detriment’ policies put in place by providers to prevent students’ marks being negatively affected by pandemic-related disruption.
This year’s Student data reflects a different set of circumstances. The 2020/21 HESA Student data covers the first full academic year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time, we see data on an entire cohort of students who began their higher education courses during the pandemic as well as those who finished their degrees with the pandemic still ongoing. We therefore felt that it was important to investigate the potential impacts of the pandemic – and the restrictions resulting from it – on the 2020/21 Student collection.
We saw some slight changes in the 2020/21 data when compared with the data from 2019/20 and earlier years, and those changes were mostly in line with what we expected we might see at the start of our investigation. Overall, however, few of the changes which we observed were unusually large. So far, any effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the HESA Student data are too minor to be distinguished from the normal variation which we would expect to see from one year to the next.
As we prepared to receive the 2020/21 Student data from providers in December 2021, a team of HESA analysts developed a set of research questions concerning the impacts of the pandemic which might be visible in this year’s data. Our research questions centred around those aspects of the HESA Student data which seemed most likely to shed light on the possible impacts of the pandemic on the student experience:
- Student numbers: Would we see any impact of the pandemic in enrolment rates? If so, would this impact vary for different groups of students or for those studying in different modes or at different levels?
- Continuation rates: Would we see a decrease in students continuing their studies in 2020/21 as a result of the pandemic circumstances of the second half of the 2019/20 academic year?
- Qualifiers and degree classifications: Would we see changes in the numbers of students receiving qualifications? Would the increase in first class degrees we saw in 2019/20 continue in 2020/21, when blanket ‘no detriment’ policies were no longer in place?
- Location of study: Would we see as many students as usual embarking on work placements or international study programmes, once it became clear that such programmes were unlikely to take place in person? Would we see more students choosing to study via distance learning, given pandemic restrictions?
- Student accommodation: Would we see changes in student accommodation decisions as a result of the pandemic?
As we developed our research questions, we were aware that other aspects of higher education were also likely to have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, there has been a great deal of interest in the effects of the pandemic on subject choice, and application data from the last two cycles has suggested an increase in students choosing to study nursing and other medical sciences. Our ability to conduct meaningful analysis of changes in subject choice since the pandemic, however, was limited by HESA’s move from the JACS subject coding system to HECoS in the 2019/20 academic year. Inconsistencies between the old and new approaches to subject coding make time series analysis complex. It seemed unlikely that we would be able to draw valid conclusions about pandemic-related changes in subject choice on the basis of HECoS data covering only two academic years, both of which followed the start of the pandemic. We therefore chose to focus instead on the potential impacts of the pandemic which were most likely to be visible in the 2020/21 HESA Student data.
Our analysis of the 2020/21 Student data revealed very few differences that went beyond the bounds of normal year-on-year variation between this year’s data and data from preceding years. This is not to say that 2020/21 was a normal academic year, or that the COVID-19 pandemic has not affected student choices and experiences, or that it will not continue to do so in the coming years. Some of the changes brought about by the pandemic in 2020/21 will not have been captured in the HESA Student data, while other, longer-term changes may become apparent in the data covering subsequent academic years.
To keep collections running under what have been extraordinarily difficult times for providers and to maintain the comparability of data between years, HESA has issued exceptional guidance for each year since the start of the pandemic. This guidance is meant to help providers make consistent decisions about how to record data under swiftly evolving circumstances, in which some categories of information have been unusually difficult to collect with certainty. Although this exceptional guidance has played an important role in HESA’s ability to continue collecting and publishing data throughout the pandemic, it has also meant that some of the changes which have occurred over the last few years may not be visible in the Student data.
In terms of our research questions, the exceptional guidance is most likely to have affected what we could learn about location of study and term-time accommodation. The exceptional guidance for recording the location of study field instructed providers to code students according to what they would have been doing in a normal year. That is, students who were studying remotely due to the pandemic but would normally have been studying in person were to be coded as ‘at a provider or partner for the whole year’; similarly, those students whose work placements took place remotely, or those who, instead of a physical year or term abroad, studied remotely with an international provider while remaining in the UK, were to be coded as ‘on an industrial placement’ or ‘abroad’, respectively, regardless of their physical location. In the case of term time accommodation, the exceptional guidance issued varied by country, but, on the whole, providers were not expected to track changes in term-time accommodation which took place strictly because of the pandemic.
On the one hand, this approach to coding location and accommodation data during the pandemic provides us with important insights into student choices. It allows us to see, for example, how many students continued to study with overseas providers or participate in work placements in a year in which most such opportunities took place only remotely. By continuing to code students studying remotely due to the pandemic as ‘at a provider or partner’, moreover, we can draw a distinction between those students whose typically in-person courses moved online – as was the case for most UK higher education students for some part of the 2020/21 academic year – and those students who chose to enrol at a provider offering distance learning courses. At the same time, this approach to coding means that we cannot look to the HESA Student data for a record of how many students were, in practice, studying remotely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020/21, nor can we be sure how many students ended up spending some part of the academic year in accommodation other than that which they had chosen at the start of the year.
In addition to those changes in the student experience which are likely to have been masked by the 2020/21 HESA Student data, there are likely to be other effects of the pandemic which may not yet be visible in the data. Many students applying to enter higher education as young undergraduates start thinking about the subjects they may want to study in higher education well before they apply, when they choose their A level subjects. Most of these students then make decisions about the programmes to which they want to apply in the first half of the academic year, before the January UCAS deadline; some courses, including all those taught at Oxford and Cambridge and the majority of courses in medicine, dentistry, and veterinary science, require students to apply by an earlier, October deadline. In the case of students beginning their studies in the 2020/21 academic year, this means that many applications will already have been sent in by January 2020, two months before the pandemic was declared.
While some applications will have been made later, particularly for postgraduate courses, and while some students may have changed their original plans in light of the pandemic, it is likely that the 2020/21 Student data will only show the very beginning of any pandemic-related trends in subject and level of study. If, as some have suggested, there is likely to be a pandemic-related surge in students choosing to study medical subjects, or in students embarking on postgraduate degrees in an attempt to insulate themselves from a potentially difficult labour market, this year’s data will only show the beginning of any such effect. Our ability to observe post-pandemic trends in subject choice, moreover, will be further complicated by the change in subject coding that took place in 2019/20 (see above). A fuller sense of the effect of the pandemic on decisions to pursue postgraduate study will require several years’ worth of data, covering not only this first pandemic cohort and the cohorts that preceded the pandemic, but also students who both applied to higher education and began their studies after the start of the pandemic.
Despite the limitations outlined above, detailed examination of the 2020/21 Student data can shed useful light on the pandemic-related trends which may be visible so far. In the following sections of this insight brief, I will discuss what we saw in the data, with a focus on what our findings suggest about the potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the scale of the disruption caused by pandemic to almost all aspects of life became increasingly clear in the spring and summer of 2020, speculation began to arise about how the year’s extraordinary circumstances were likely to influence behaviour. In the higher education sector, much of this speculation centred around enrolment. After higher education providers moved to remote learning, there were worries that UK-based students who might otherwise have enrolled in courses of higher education would defer enrolment or turn to other options after finishing their secondary education. As borders closed, there was also widespread concern that the pandemic would lead to a collapse in the UK’s international student population.
The first thing to note about the 2020/21 Student data is that overall student numbers are up by more than 8% over 2019/20. This overall increase is driven in large part by increases in first year students; the 2020/21 first year student population is up about 10% over the equivalent population from 2019/20 (see Statistical Bulletin Figure 1 below). We see large increases particularly in UK-based first year first degree students and in students, both domestic and international, beginning taught postgraduate degrees. These overall increases are likely to be due to a combination of factors, some related to the pandemic and some not.
Some part of the rise in UK-based first degree students can be traced to trends in demographics and higher education participation. On the demographic level, the number of 18-year-olds in the UK started to rise in 2020 after years of steady decline, leading to an increase in the number of potential 18-year-old higher education applicants. In addition, the young higher education participation rate has been rising steadily across the UK, which leads to an increased demand for HE places; this is a long-term trend, which was interrupted only briefly from 2011 to 2013, as applicants took into account the announced increase in tuition fees. According to UCAS analysis of the 2020 application cycle, 2020 was a record year for applications, with 41.5% of 18-year-olds applying for higher education places.
Compounding the effects of demographics and the steady increase in young higher education participation rates, summer 2020 saw a change in how A level grades were awarded in light of the pandemic. After the cancellation of A level exams in spring 2020, the move to centre assessed grades led to an increase in candidates meeting their offer conditions. UCAS end of cycle data for 2020 shows a 5.5% increase in placed main scheme applicants following the change in grading, and an overall record acceptance rate of 89.1% for the 18-year-old applicants in the 2020 application cycle.
Among students other than young first year undergraduates, we also see an increase in students enrolling on taught postgraduate courses. While numbers of postgraduate students have been increasing in recent years – as has the proportion of the overall student population made up by postgraduate students – 2020/21 shows a particularly large increase in taught postgraduate students, particularly those studying part-time. While we cannot be sure that this increase is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is possible that the pandemic had an impact on some students’ decisions about postgraduate study. While many students will have decided firmly whether or not to apply for postgraduate study before the pandemic was declared, taught postgraduate places on many courses can be available throughout the spring and summer. As the likely magnitude of the effects of the pandemic became clearer over the course of spring 2020, it is possible that some students will have decided to pursue postgraduate study at least in part as a means to increase their chances of success in a potentially difficult labour market.
Despite fears about the potential effect of the pandemic on international student numbers, the 2020/21 Student data still shows an overall increase in international first year students (see Figure A below). First year first degree student numbers from the EU are up by 8%, only slightly below the rate of increase for first year students overall; EU-domiciled postgraduate student enrolments are also up, but the rate of increase is smaller. The 2020/21 academic year was the last year in which EU students were guaranteed home fee status, which may have encouraged EU applicants not to defer their studies, despite the uncertain pandemic situation.
The number of international first year first degree students from outside the EU is down slightly on 2019/20, but this is counterbalanced by a 7% increase in non-EU postgraduate research students and an 8% increase in non-EU taught postgraduate students, who represent the largest single group of international students. While the biggest increases in first year student numbers are among UK-based students, it seems clear that, despite the pandemic circumstances, UK higher education remains an attractive option for international students.
The second half of the 2019/20 academic year was a time of profound upheaval. As the severity of the pandemic became apparent in March 2020, higher education providers began moving provision online; on 18 March 2020, the government advised that all education settings, including universities, should pause face-to-face provision. As lockdown restrictions tightened, many students found themselves not only studying remotely, but working with limited access to the academic resources – including, in many cases, study spaces and computers – which would normally have been available to them on campus. Although the ‘no detriment’ policies adopted by many providers shielded students in exam years from adverse effects on their marks, students were nevertheless coping with difficult circumstances in the spring of 2020.
Although it seemed plausible that the difficulties – both academic and personal – caused by the pandemic would have an adverse effect on the rate of students continuing their studies into the 2020/21 academic year, this year’s continuation rates did not differ substantially from those seen in other academic years. The slight variations which we did see in continuation – although roughly in line with normal year-on-year changes – were nonetheless interesting in the context of the pandemic. On the one hand, we saw a year-on-year decrease in the number of students who either left with no award or gained a different award than the one they had originally been aiming for; that is, fewer students dropped out after the start of the pandemic than dropped out the year before the pandemic began. On the other hand, we also saw a decrease in the number of students who gained their intended award, and a slight increase in the number of students who were listed as dormant or writing up.
Overall, our examination of continuation data for the year suggests that, although some students may have been delayed in finishing their qualifications, the numbers affected were relatively small, and we cannot be certain that the changes we saw in the data were a result of the disruption caused by the pandemic. Under the exceptional circumstances of the first year of the pandemic, the vast majority of students have carried on working towards the completion of their qualifications, as they would in a less exceptional year.
At the end of the 2019/20 academic year, administrative delays related to the pandemic led to a number of degrees not being reported during the normal data collection process. The resulting dip in qualifiers in the 2019/20 HESA student data was followed by a corresponding rise in the number of qualifiers in the 2020/21 Student data, as providers reported those qualifiers whose degrees had not been reported for the 2019/20 academic year. Both the dip in 2019/20 qualifiers and the corresponding rise in 2020/21 can be seen across most modes and levels of study; only among postgraduate research students do we see a decrease in the number of qualifications awarded in the 2020/21 academic year compared to 2019/20 (see Statistical Bulletin Figure 15 below).
The move to remote learning in the spring of 2020 prompted widespread concern about likely impacts on learning and academic attainment. For students due to sit exams or submit work for assessment in the second half of the 2019/20 academic year, there was considerable worry that the exceptional circumstances under which they had prepared and – in many institutions – the altered format of assessment exercises would place students at a disadvantage relative to students assessed in previous years. To mitigate against this possibility, many providers instituted ‘no detriment’ policies, according to which students’ final marks could not be harmed by their performance in assessments held in the spring of 2020. The introduction of these policies was correlated with a substantial increase in the proportion of first degree students awarded first class degrees, which is visible when the 2019/20 data is compared with data on degree classifications from previous years (see Statistical Bulletin Figure 16 below).
Circumstances in the 2020/21 academic year were somewhat different. Although many of the blanket ‘no detriment’ policies of the previous year were discontinued at the end of the 2019/20 academic year, the 2020/21 academic year was still subject to pandemic-related disruptions; much learning took place remotely, access to campus facilities was limited, and many students needed to self-isolate at various points. Many providers therefore instituted modified mitigation or ‘no detriment policies’ designed to take into consideration the ongoing difficulties faced by students. The continuation of these mitigation policies, coupled with changes to assessment practices, is reflected in the degree classifications awarded in the 2020/21 academic year; although the proportion of first class degrees awarded in 2020/21 is only very slightly higher than the proportion awarded in 2019/20, it remains much higher than the proportion awarded in the last pre-pandemic year (see Statistical Bulletin Figure 16 above).
Looking at the 2020/21 data on qualifiers and qualifications, we see a general trend of stabilisation after the upheaval of the second half of the 2019/20 academic year. None of the changes visible in the 2020/21 data go beyond the bounds of typical year-on-year variation. We see an increase in the total number of 2020/21 qualifiers, but this increase reflects the inclusion of those qualifiers whose degrees were not recorded at the end of the 2019/20 academic year. While the proportion of students awarded first class degrees continues to rise, the rate of increase seems to have slowed considerably following the more dramatic rise which took place in the first year of the pandemic.
One of the most notable effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on society has been the extent to which people’s movements have been constrained. While the restrictions on movement that were in place for much of the 2020/21 academic year were for the most part less strict than those which were in place during the first UK-wide lockdown in spring 2020, they still had a major effect on daily life. It therefore seemed plausible that, following a fully remote end to the 2019/20 academic year and faced with various uncertainties about the 2020/21 academic year, students might make different decisions about where and how to study than they would have done before the pandemic.
International experiences and work placements are an important part of higher education for many students. Restrictions on travel and limited opportunities for in-person work experience during the 2020/21 academic year, however, meant that many international and work placements took place remotely, with students either studying remotely with an overseas provider or working remotely with a placement provider. According to the exceptional guidance issued for the 2020/21 academic year, students involved in such remote study abroad programmes or work placements appear in our data as either abroad or on placements, as they would if those programmes were taking place in person. Although it seemed possible that fewer students would choose to embark on study abroad programmes or work placements knowing that those programmes would not take place in person, we saw no unusual year-on-year change in the number of students on work placements or studying abroad.
The 2020/21 academic year did see a dramatic 54% decrease in the number of students studying abroad for a portion of the year when compared to 2019/20. Tempting as it is to see the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic in this figure, this decrease represents part of a longer-term trend, stretching back before the start of the pandemic: the 54% decrease in 2020/21 followed a 33% decrease in 2019/20, which in turn followed a 50% decrease in 2018/19. While the pandemic may have something to do with the decrease visible in the 2020/21 data, it is highly likely that other factors, such as the long-term decline in the numbers of students studying modern languages and the repercussions of the Brexit referendum, including the 2020 withdrawal of the UK from the Erasmus scheme, played just as big a part.
Given the likelihood that most higher education courses – even those originally designed to be taught in-person – would be taught remotely for at least part of the 2020/21 academic year, we thought when we began our analyses that students might be more likely than usual to enrol on courses designed to be taught via distance learning. Such students would be visible in the data as remote learners, unlike those students who were engaging in remote learning due to the pandemic, who would be recorded as studying at their provider, in line with the exceptional guidance issued to providers. We did see a 25% increase in the number of UK-based students enrolled on distance learning courses in the 2020/21 academic year, but this change is still within the bounds of normal year-on-year variation. While the pandemic may have played a role in students’ willingness to consider remote learning, it is also likely that there were other factors at play, not least the overall rise in student numbers which we saw in 2020/21.
As the COVID-19 pandemic forced positive cases and their close contacts to isolate, and as public health regulations limited mixing between members of different households, there was an increasing focus on where higher education students were living during the academic year. In a typical year, some students live in their family home or a home they own themselves, some live – often with other students – in privately owned rental accommodation, and some live in halls of residence owned by their provider or in other purpose-built student accommodation. As concerns about infection – and the resulting need for whole households to isolate – increased over the course of spring 2020, it seemed possible that students’ choices about where to live in the following academic year would be shaped by the evolving circumstances of the pandemic.
When we compared the term-time accommodation data for all students in 2020/21 to the equivalent data from previous years, we saw no unusual year-on-year differences. We saw a slight year-on-year decrease in the number of students in private-sector halls or provider maintained property, which is possibly interesting in light of the overall increase in the number of students enrolled for the 2020/21 academic year. At the same time, we saw increases in the number of students living in their own homes or in the home of their parent(s) or guardian(s); although there has been a gradual increase in students staying in these categories of accommodation since the 2017/18 academic year, 2020/21 shows the largest year-on-increase in recent years.
We also saw a relatively large increase in the number of students whose term-time accommodation was unknown, which suggests that, in a year in which students moved back and forth between remote and in-person study, it was difficult for providers to obtain reliable data on where their students were living. None of the changes we saw are out of line with normal year-on-year variation in student accommodation choices, but the trends we did observe may either reflect the increase in students studying remotely or suggest that some students may have been more inclined to live in smaller households given the pandemic circumstances.
When we looked at the term-time accommodation of only first year students, however, we did observe a notable difference. The number of students whose term-time accommodation data shows that they were not in attendance at their provider increased markedly in 2020/21, when compared with the number in the same category each year since the 2016/17 academic year. One possibility is that, following the increased need for places for first-year students, more students than usual were taught in their first year through arrangements with partner colleges and would therefore have been coded as not in attendance at their main provider.
Another possibility is that some of these first-year students were studying remotely due to the pandemic and had never yet been physically in residence at their provider. Although their providers coded their location of study in line with the exceptional guidance as ‘at a provider or partner for the whole of the academic year’, the guidance on term-time accommodation was less specific, and providers may have used ‘not in attendance at the provider’ to record the term-time accommodation of those first-year students who were not in residence, possibly reusing coding from the previous academic year for continuing students. The total number of first-year students in this category is small; out of a first-year intake of more than 1.2 million, only 3320 are recorded as not in attendance at their provider.
While we did see some apparent changes in the 2020/21 Student data as compared to previous years, and while these changes were mostly in line with what we might have expected, given the circumstances of the pandemic, the vast majority of the changes we saw were within the bounds of expected year-on-year variation. In other words, to the extent that the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact, it has not been so large as to drive major changes in the HESA Student data. While it seems plausible that the pandemic may be a factor in the 2020/21 data, we cannot be sure, and we have not been able to distinguish the effect of the pandemic from the effects of other factors which may have influenced this year’s data.
After almost two years of profound upheaval in most aspects of life in the UK, it is important to be cautious about the causes which we attribute to apparent year-on-year variation in the data. Year-on-year variation is an inevitable part of collecting annual population data and publishing that data in time series. Each year we see areas which have increased or decreased in comparison to the previous year, and we must remain aware that minor changes, even when they align with the pandemic effects which we expected to see, cannot necessarily be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the apparent changes which fit our expectations, in fact, predated the pandemic; while we might have expected the pandemic to drive down the number of students studying abroad for part of the academic year, and while we did see a decline in such students in 2020/21, the number of students in this category has been decreasing annually since at least 2017, and we therefore cannot assume that the pandemic is behind this year’s decrease.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education in the UK – and on society as a whole – are still ongoing. While the 2020/21 academic year was the first to take place entirely during the pandemic, the effects of COVID-19 have persisted, and, no matter how the situation evolves in the coming months, we will be collecting data on students whose educational experience has been affected by the pandemic for years to come. Some of the trends we saw in the 2020/21 data may be magnified in subsequent years, or we may see new trends emerge which are not yet visible at all in this year’s data. In the coming years, we therefore intend to continue both monitoring the impacts of the pandemic on the HESA Student data and publishing guidance to help our users understand those impacts.
 See the Notes from the 2019/20 Student Statistical Bulletin for a summary of the impacts of the pandemic on the 2019/20 data: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/27-01-2021/sb258-higher-education-student-st...
 For further information on the change from JACS to HECoS and the complexities of conducting time series analysis, see the Notes from the 2019/20 Student Statistical Bulletin: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/27-01-2021/sb258-higher-education-student-statistics/notes
 See, for example, the ‘central scenario’ explored by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in their July 2020 report on whether universities would need a bailout to survive the pandemic: https://ifs.org.uk/uploads/BN300-Will-universities-need-bailout-survive-COVID-19-crisis-1.pdf
 Office for National Statistics. 2019. Old age structure variant – UK population in age groups. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationprojections/datasets/tablel21oldagestructurevariantukpopulationinagegroups
 HEPI 2020. Demand for higher education to 2035. https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Demand-for-Higher-Education-to-2035_HEPI-Report-134_FINAL.pdf
 UCAS 2020. What happened to the Covid cohort? https://www.ucas.com/file/411836/download?token=51eovdPq
 Department for Education and Department for International Trade. 2019, updated 2021. International education strategy: global potential, global growth. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/international-education-strategy-global-potential-global-growth/international-education-strategy-global-potential-global-growth
 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
 Note that some qualifications awarded in the 2020/21 academic year will belong to students who finished their study in the previous academic year, but whose qualifications were not reported due to pandemic-related administrative delays.