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Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2020/21 - Subjects studied

Statistical Bulletin SB262

What are students in HE studying?

We present a two-year time series only for data on subjects. This follows the implementation of Higher Education Classification of Subjects (HECoS) to replace our older subject coding scheme (JACS) in 2019/20. A Common Aggregation Hierarchy (CAH) was developed in part to act as a 'bridge' between the two coding frames. Following analysis of the quality characteristics of CAH (see notes for more details), HESA has decided not to utilise CAH v1.3.4 for time series analysis of older data within this bulletin. For background information, refer to HESA's webpage on HECoS and CAH.

In 2020/21:

  • Business and management attracted the highest number of students overall with 17% of all students enrolling in this subject.
  • First year enrolments in subjects allied to medicine increased by 20%. Veterinary sciences saw the second largest percentage increase with 18%.
  • Computing saw the largest percentage change in female first year enrolments with a 24% increase.
  • Despite an increase in student enrolments overall in 2020/21, the proportion of students studying Language and area studies decreased by 1 percentage point compared with 2019/20. While subject classification definitions pre-2019 are not directly comparable, we have previously reported a decline in the study of Languages. The data appear to indicate that this trend has continued.
  • In terms of diversity within subjects, 81% of students studying veterinary sciences were female. For engineering and technology and computing, only 21% of students were female.

Figure 13 - HE student enrolments by CAH level 1 subject and sex

Academic years 2019/20 to 2020/21

What if a student studies more than one subject?

Figures in subject tables are Full Person Equivalent (FPE). If a student on a course (an 'instance') studied more than one subject then that instance is split between those subjects. For example, a student studying ⅔ business studies and ⅓ law will be counted as 0.67 FPE in business & administrative studies and 0.33 FPE in law. See the subject of study definitions for more detail.

How are science subjects defined?

The science grouping is an aggregation of CAH level 1 codes CAH01 through to CAH13 and CAH26 with the exception of CAH26-01-03 (Human geography). CAH26 (Geographical and environmental studies) has been disaggregated so that CAH26-01-03 (Human geography) is presented in the non-science grouping labelled as 'Geographical and environmental studies (social sciences)'. All other CAH level 3 codes within CAH26 are presented in the science grouping labelled as 'Geographical and environmental studies (natural sciences)'. This grouping of science subjects has been created by HESA.

What is the ‘subjects allied to medicine’ subject area?

Subjects allied to medicine are those related to human health such as nursing, pharmacy and anatomy. Over half of students in the subjects allied to medicine subject area study for nursing qualifications. Download the Common Aggregation Hierarchy (version 1.3.4) to see more detail of HECoS codes included within each CAH grouping.

What is the ‘combined and general studies’ subject area?

Combined and general studies is only used for students on courses which do not specify a subject specialism. The majority of students in the combined subject area study at The Open University.

Figure 14 shows the percentage of students of certain characteristics, studying science subjects.

  • Between 2019/20 and 2020/21 there was a small increase in the percentage of females studying science subjects, but this remains lower than the overall percentage studying science subjects (45%).
  • The proportion of black first year undergraduate enrolments in science subjects has increased by 4 percentage points from 2019/20. 

Figure 14 - Percentage of HE student enrolments in science subjects by personal characteristics

Academic years 2019/20 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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