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Parental education data: Why students might respond ‘I don’t know’

The latest HESA research shows students living in areas with a higher proportion of lone parent families are less likely to know if any parent has higher education qualifications.

Read the research insight on the HESA website 

Research into social mobility shows that students are more likely to enter higher education if their parents also attended university. To measure the participation of under-represented students, the UCAS application form asks students if any of their parents or guardians have higher education qualifications.

However, around 15% of applicants either do not complete the parental education question or answer that they don’t know. To explore the potential reasons for this ‘missing’ data, HESA researchers have studied the characteristics of students who answered ‘I don’t know’.

Using census data to identify neighbourhoods with high proportions of lone parent families, HESA researchers observed that students from these postcodes were more likely to answer ‘I don’t know’ than students from areas with lower percentages of single parent households.

Lead Statistical Analyst, Archie Bye, said:

“This research identifies a potential driver of missing data in the parental education field - namely that individuals living in lone parent households appear not to be aware of the qualifications possessed by the other parent and respond by saying ‘I don’t know’.

“If future research adds further support for these findings, there might be value in reviewing the way the question is asked, alongside the associated guidance provided to applicants, to help with improving the quality of the parental education data.”


  • HESA is now part of Jisc. Jisc is now the data controller of personal data previously controlled by HESA. Privacy information on the HESA website has been updated. 
  • HESA supports the advancement of higher education across all nations of the UK through the data it collects, assures and disseminates. We undertake research to advance public knowledge and understanding of UK higher education, and to improve our own outputs in the public interest.
  • Jisc cannot accept responsibility for any inferences or conclusions derived from the data by third parties.

More from the HESA Research team

HESA’s Principal Researcher Tej Nathwani wrote two blogs published by the Society for Research into Higher Education.

Tuesday 7 February - Tej discussed why we need a new area-based measure of deprivation and how may it benefit the higher education sector:

Deprivation data: Introducing a new UK-wide area-based measure

Wednesday 8 February - Tej looked at how our new graduate geographical mobility marker will be helpful to data users interested in spatial inequalities and economic growth:

Moving with the times: The growing need for better graduate mobility data

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