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Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2020/21 - Student numbers and characteristics

Statistical Bulletin SB262

How many students are in HE?

  • The total number of HE students stood at 2,751,865 in 2020/21, an increase of 9% from 2019/20. Including HE students registered at FE providers throughout the UK, the total number of HE students was 2,912,380 (see figure 4).
  • There was a 10% increase in first year enrolments between 2019/20 and 2020/21.
  • Among first year masters taught students the numbers studying full-time increased by 30,350 from 2019/20 to 2020/21. Numbers studying part-time increased by 11,700.
  • The proportion of students enrolled on postgraduate courses continues to increase, from 23% to 27% since 2016/17. This can be attributed to a rise in masters taught course enrolments. Increases from 2016/17 coincided with the introduction of postgraduate loans for masters' students, but from 2017/18 was mostly due to an increase in non-EU students. A breakdown of all postgraduate taught course enrolments by domicile can be seen in figure 9.
  • Despite an increase of 112,860 enrolments on first degree courses in 2020/21, the proportion of the student population enrolled on first degree courses has dropped by 2 percentage points compared to 2019/20. The proportion of all other levels of undergraduate enrolments remained constant.
What does ‘first degree’ mean?

First degrees generally lead to a bachelors qualification such as BA or BSc (rather than a masters or doctorate degree). ‘First degree’ describes the course of study and may include students who already hold a first degree. See the level of study definitions for more detail.

What is 'Institutional credit'?

Learning identified as bite-sized, standalone modules of study. Covers a wide range of short-term learning; examples include Continuing Professional Development (CPD) learning for healthcare professionals, such as Advanced Skills in Clinical Assessment at Anglia Ruskin University, or standalone languages modules like those taken in King’s College London Modern Language Centre. These are not regarded as full qualifications.

Figure 3 - HE student enrolments by level of study

Academic years 2016/17 to 2020/21


What is ‘First year marker’?

This option restricts the table to only show students who were on the first year of their course. This is useful for restricting data to the newest cohort of entrants. See the year of study definitions for more detail.

  • HE student enrolments at FE providers have decreased over the past five years.
  • FE providers represented 4% of all HE student enrolments in 2020/21. This has decreased from 5% in 2019/20.
  • Full-time enrolments at FE providers saw increases from 2019/20 to 2020/21 for first degree and postgraduate courses, but a decrease for other undergraduate. Part-time enrolments decreased across all levels of study. 

Figure 4 - HE student enrolments at HE and FE providers by level of study and HE provider type

Academic years 2016/17 to 2020/21


What is an FE provider?

Further education (FE) providers are typically FE Colleges or Sixth form colleges. They mainly provide further education courses (see What qualification levels mean on to students aged 16 and over, that are not at the higher education (HE) level. FE providers are generally funded by a different mechanism from HE providers and their data collected by different organisations.  

Many FE providers also provide some HE level courses. The FE funding and data collection bodies have provided aggregate statistics about students on HE courses so that we can give an overview of the full scale of higher education study in the UK.

What are the characteristics of HE students?

Sex of students

  • Of all HE students in 2020/21, 57% were female (see figure 5). This has been the same since 2016/17.
  • A larger proportion of part-time students were female than full-time students.
  • Other undergraduate courses showed the greatest gap in the proportion of male and female students, while Postgraduate research courses showed the smallest gap.

Age of students

  • In 2020/21 the proportion of first year student enrolments increased for those aged 25-29 years and for those 30 years and over, but decreased for those aged 20 and under.
  • Over the five-year time series, the proportion of first year students aged 20 and under has decreased by 5 percentage points, from 42% to 37%. Despite this change, this age group continues to be the largest.

Student disability status

  • While the overall number of students with a known disability continued to increase year-on-year, the proportion of students with a disability in 2020/21 showed no change compared to 2019/20.
  • Between 2019/20 and 2020/21 this increase was 48,575. Students with a specific learning difficulty or a mental health condition form the largest groups within those with a known disability.
  • There were 135,990 students with a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or AD(H)D in 2020/21. This number accounts for 33% of all students with a known disability. A further 122,530 students reported a mental health condition, such as depression, schizophrenia or anxiety disorder.

Religious belief of students

  • Students with no religion or religious belief account for 48% of all students.

Ethnicity of students

  • The percentage distribution in 2020/21 remains consistent with 2019/20. Students of White ethnicity accounted for 74% of all UK domiciled enrolments.
  • Compared to 2016/17, the percentage of UK domiciled postgraduate students that are White has decreased. However, the percentage that are Asian, Black and Mixed ethnic backgrounds has increased.
  • There was a greater proportional change over the five-year period for students that are White who studied full-time compared to those studying part-time.
What does ‘UK domiciled’ mean?

UK domiciled means that the UK was a student’s normal place of residence before starting their course. In this release Guernsey, Jersey and Isle of Man residents are included in ‘UK domiciled’. See the domicile definitions for more detail.

What is ‘BME’?

The HESA student record includes ethnicity information collected from HE providers (see ethnicity definition).

BME stands for ‘Black and minority ethnic’ and is a combination of the Black, Asian, Mixed and Other ethnicity categories.

Figure 5 - HE student enrolments by personal characteristics

Academic years 2016/17 to 2020/21



Widening participation data is only returned to HESA for students who apply through UCAS, so to align with the cohort who typically enter through this route, figure 6 has been restricted to undergraduate UK domiciled full-time students.

Index of multiple deprivation (IMD) applies to student domicile, other domicile IMD data will be hidden when a country is selected. The various indices of multiple deprivation use similar methodologies, but differ in the indicators used, the time periods included and the sizes of the areas they cover. These factors mean that IMD is not comparable between UK administrations.

Low participation neighbourhood information comes from the participation of local areas (POLAR) classification, which is maintained by the Office for Students. This data shows:

  • Since 2016/17, the proportion of students from a state-funded school or college has remained constant at 91%.
  • The proportion of students from a state-funded school or college was greater for those enrolled in other undergraduate courses compared with those in first degree courses.
  • In 2020/21, half of the students enrolled in first degree courses had one or more parent(s) that attained a higher education qualification. This compared with 34% for those enrolled in other undergraduate courses.
  • Between 2019/20 and 2020/21, the proportion of undergraduate students from a low participation neighbourhood increased by 1 percentage point.

Figure 6 - UK domiciled full-time HE undergraduate student enrolments by participation characteristics

Academic years 2016/17 to 2020/21



National Statistic

Release date

25 January 2022, 9:30



Release frequency

Annual - view all releases (1998/99 onwards)


Children, education and skills

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Luke Perrott

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