Autumn and spring term 2020/21

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Reporting in Higher Education Providers

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See all updates (1) for Autumn and spring term 2020/21
  1. Release updated to add data on confirmed COVID-19 cases known to providers and estimates of students self-isolating in HE up to 7 April 2021. Some earlier case and self-isolation data have also been corrected following updates from providers.

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This ad hoc statistics publication provides a summary of confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) cases known to higher education providers (HEP) between 1 August 2020 and 7 April 2021. ‘Case’ here means a positive test result known to providers and reported to DfE through the Office for Students reporting tool. This publication is an update to the previous publication which covered cases and self-isolation data up to 3 February 2021. Weekly breakdowns of confirmed cases along with numbers of students known to be self-isolating are presented from 29 October. The data covers England only. 

It should be noted when interpreting the data that the number of confirmed cases reported will depend on four key factors beyond the actual prevalence of the disease at HE settings:

  1. The extent to which providers are aware of such confirmed cases among their students and staff;
  2. The number of providers making a return. This varied across the period covered with weeks unaffected by term start or end seeing between 73% and 83% of providers making a return;
  3. The management of the pandemic. The extent to which students and staff are expected to be ‘on site’ for face to face teaching has varied across the pandemic.  Since 8 March, around 49% of students are expected on site (see About this Release and Methodology for more details). The departure of students for the winter break and their subsequent return in the Spring term was also accompanied by a rapid asymptomatic testing strategy. This would have led to higher detection rates, including asymptomatic cases, compared to earlier in the Autumn term.
  4. University term dates.  The winter and Easter breaks were likely to be associated with many students returning home and not reporting any infections via their providers.

These factors mean that confirmed cases reported by HEPs  are likely to be a subset of the number of positive cases in students and staff identified through NHS Test and Trace.

Headline facts and figures - 2020/21

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Key Statistics

Autumn Term

Between the start of November and the end of the Autumn term in December, the number of confirmed student cases known to providers decreased. In the week to 4 November 2020 there were 4,031 confirmed cases known compared with 740 cases in the week to 16 December 2020, a decrease of 82%.  The number of confirmed cases in staff followed a broadly similar pattern, decreasing by 56% over the same period, although cases rose slightly in the final 7 day period (from 180 to 194). This period of decline in cases during November coincided with the second national lockdown (5 November to 2 December).

The rapid lateral flow tests that began for HE in December represent a discontinuity in the series. This is because individuals testing positive were still required to take a confirmatory polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, thereby potentially increasing the ‘confirmed’ cases known to providers. 

The numbers of cases known to providers during and after the student travel window may have been depressed by students being absent from their term-time address (and less likely to report any positive test).

Spring Term

Confirmed case numbers known to providers for both staff and students increased in the week to 13 January but have since declined. This initial increase is due to the effect of the winter break on reporting and the varying Spring term start dates (see section below for more information). 

In the week to 13 January, there were 2,854 confirmed student cases and 1,227 confirmed staff cases. In the week to 7 April, there were 71 confirmed student and 21 confirmed staff cases, representing falls of 98% for both staff and students compared to the week to 13 January. These falls have occurred in the context of the third national lockdown, which began on 6 January and the smaller number of students in scope to return to in person teaching in January (we estimate 19% were in scope to return). More students were allowed to return to in person teaching from 8 March (we estimate that 49%of all students in England were in scope to return from this date), see the section About this Release for more information. 

Lockdown restrictions also began to ease from the end of March (6 people or 2 households were allowed to meet outdoors, outdoor sports facilities opened and the stay at home rule ended), which so far has not led to an increase in positive cases. However, case numbers at the end of term may have been impacted by the spring holiday break as many students may have returned home and therefore may not have reported cases to their provider.

Effect of Winter Break on Spring Term Data Reporting

Providers were asked to include any known confirmed cases reported to them during the winter break in their first Spring term return. Confirmed case numbers in the first three weeks of the Spring term are therefore inflated by this effect. See the methodology document for details.

Provider response rate was at its lowest (47%) in the 7 days to 6 January. This reflects the fact that term start dates vary from provider to provider, and not all would have resumed teaching by that date.

About this Release

Context of the Release

To understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on England’s higher education sector, the Department for Education (DfE) asked the Office for Students (OfS) to set up a reporting tool. Higher Education providers (HEPs) were asked to record confirmed COVID-19 cases reported to them by staff and students. They were also asked to provide summary information on how the pandemic is impacting their teaching provision (by reporting their higher education tiers of restriction) and further contextualising information. 

All English HEPs registered with the OfS in October 2020 were invited to participate, except for further education colleges. The total number of providers in scope was 237. See below for further information about the tool.

In line with DfE guidance published in December not all students were in scope to return to in person teaching in January. DfE estimate that 19% of HE students were enrolled on courses in subject areas eligible for return. These included only students on courses which had to be delivered in person and which supported the pipeline of future critical key workers (eg nursing, medicine, teacher training). More students were in scope to return from 8 March and DfE estimate that 49% of HE students  were enrolled on courses in subject areas eligible to return (including those eligible to return in January). These included students studying all other subjects with a practical or practice based element (eg creative arts, science). It is difficult to estimate how many students returned to their term-time accommodation during the Spring term (or had remained over Christmas), but we expect the total to be smaller than it was before the start of the student travel window in December.

Data for positive cases in England can be found on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the UK dashboard, although no breakdowns are available for HE students or staff.

Note that it is possible for students and staff to take more than one test over time and for all positive tests to be reported as ‘confirmed’ cases through the OfS reporting tool. It is currently unclear if providers de-duplicate before reporting the data via the reporting tool, with no further de-duplication able to occur once they have uploaded the data.

The Office for Students' COVID-19 Reporting tool

Data collection began on 20 October 2020, and a revised tool was launched in response to provider feedback on 27 October. Further revisions were made in January and March to collect additional contextualising data around student return.

In their first submission, higher education providers (HEPs) were asked to return information on all confirmed cases known to them since 1 August 2020. In subsequent submissions providers were asked to report on all confirmed cases known to them since their previous submission.

The collection of the data for the Autumn term ended on 21 December and resumed for the Spring term on 4 January 2021. This leads to a break in the collection. In their first submission of the Spring term, providers were asked to report any confirmed case known to them since their last submission at the end of the Autumn term.

Full details about data collection through the Office for Students (OfS) COVID-19 reporting tool are found in the methodology document.

Data corrections

HEPs can make retrospective corrections to their data when they submit data returns. The numbers reported in this publication relate to data submitted by 8 April 2021. HEPs may have made revisions to their data since then and may make revisions in future returns. 

‘Confirmed’ Cases

Prior to 27 January, known confirmed cases were defined only as those confirmed by a positive result from a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test. From 27 January and 29 March this was no longer a requirement except for those self-reporting their test result. DfE updated the guidance accordingly, meaning data from the week beginning 25 January onwards is not directly comparable with that from preceding dates. The data presented in this publication up to 7 April does not account for the reintroduction of confirmatory PCR testing from 30 March 2021 and all positive LFD test results are included (where reported by the provider).

Providers are asked to report all such cases known to them. Where providers have operated their own testing programmes and recorded positive results, these cases will be included in these statistics. Cases where individuals do not report the results of tests to their provider (for example, those taken at community centres or at home) will not be included.

Data Coverage

This publication is a summary of returns provided up to Thursday 8 April 2021, covering data up to 7 April.  Data collection began on 20 October 2020; however, data quality issues in the first week of collection mean that we present weekly breakdowns of confirmed cases only from 29 October 2020 (the 7 days to 4 November). Total cases reported are for the entire period since 1 August 2020.

There were 237 HEPs in scope of the data collection. This is considerably lower than the total number of providers registered with the OfS (which was 420 on 20 April 2021), mainly because further education colleges are excluded. 

Since the collection began, 91% of the 237 HEPs in scope have provided at least one response to the survey. 

Response rates for the collection have generally been good. All the response rates for the 4 weeks incorporating data for November 2020 were between 81% and 83%. Response rates then remained between 77% and 81% until the week ending 16 December 2020. For the week ending 6 January 2021, the response rate declined to 47%, likely reflecting the fact that not all providers had begun the Spring term in that week. As January progressed, the response rate increased and during recent weeks (not including end of term/holiday weeks)  has stabilised between 76% and 78%. Response rates are discussed further in the methodology document.

COVID-19 testing in HE

Rapid lateral flow tests for HE in December 2020 supported a strategy to enable students wishing to travel home for the winter break to do so safely. Tests are used to identify those with coronavirus (COVID-19) who do not have symptoms. Rapid lateral flow tests have continued to be offered in HE settings in the Spring term to support safe return to in person teaching. Only students enrolled on some courses that required in person teaching (eg clinical courses, teacher training) were eligible to return to in person teaching in January (19% of all English Students). Students on all other courses with a practical element were eligible to return from 8 March taking the total returning to in person teaching to 49%.

Prior to 27 January 2021, if an individual received a positive LFD test result they were required to take a PCR test to confirm this. This requirement means that the start of rapid lateral flow testing acted to increase the ‘confirmed’ cases potentially known to providers and introduces a discontinuity in the series. 

Between 27 January and 29 March 2021 this was no longer a requirement except for those self-reporting their test result. From 30 March 2021 the requirement to take a confirmatory PCR test was reinstated for all positive LFD tests. For more information see NHS Test and Trace weekly statistics on rapid asymptomatic testing.

Due to the change in the confirmatory PCR guidance, from the week beginning 25 January we asked providers to consider a positive test result from a lateral flow device test to be ‘confirmed’. This introduced a second discontinuity in the series. The data presented in this publication does not account for the reintroduction of confirmatory PCR testing from 30 March 2021 and all positive LFD test results are included (where reported by the provider).

Estimated Rates of COVID-19 in Higher Education Settings

We have attempted to estimate case rates within the student and staff population based on headcount data returned by higher education providers (see methodology document for full details). These are expressed as estimates of the weekly known cases per 100,000.  These show decreases for both students and staff across the November period. Between the start of November and the end of the Autumn term, the estimated 7 day known case rate decreased from 221.9 per 100,000 to 44.0 per 100,000; for staff, the decrease was from 122.0 per 100,000 to 58.5 per 100,000.

The noticeable fall in estimated case rates in December will be partly explained by student migration away from term-time accommodation that occurred around the student winter travel window. We are unable to adjust our case rate estimates to reflect the reduction in the on-site student population that would have occurred during this time. Further details of our estimated rates calculations are available in the methodology document.

We do not estimate case rates for students or staff during the Spring term. This is because we cannot reliably estimate how many students are engaged in in-person learning and/or are resident in their term-time accommodation. Only a subset of students are in scope for in-person learning following DfE guidance issued in December and return to term-time accommodation for other groups is likely lower than it would otherwise have been due to the national lockdown which began on 6 January.

The estimated rates for staff and students should not be directly compared with national rates published elsewhere (see ‘Other Sources of Data on COVID-19 in Higher Education Settings’) because they are calculated using only those confirmed case numbers known to providers and there remains some uncertainty around the populations of both staff and students even during the Autumn term.

Estimates of Students self-isolating in Higher Education settings

Providers are asked to report the number of students at their institution known to be self-isolating at the time of each data return. 

In the Autumn term we asked for this information to be reported only if a provider had reported 25 or more confirmed cases in the previous 7 days (some providers voluntarily reported this information even if reporting fewer cases). In the Spring term we asked all providers to report this information. This introduces a discontinuity in the series after the Christmas break.

The number of students known to be self-isolating fell during the Autumn term. Although this might be partly explained by a fall in the number of providers reporting, it also tracks the fall in confirmed cases reported in the same period. In the week to 4 November 2020 there were approximately 19,600 students known to be self-isolating. This figure decreased to 4,000 by the end of term in the week to 16 December, a fall of 80%.

The number known to be self-isolating has varied between 400 and 4,100 in the Spring term. These figures should not be directly compared with figures for the Autumn term. Although more providers are now reporting on self-isolation, fewer students will be resident in their term-time address due to the restrictions on in person teaching and the impact of the third national lockdown. The end of the term and Easter holiday break may also impact on the number reporting as self-isolating.

Education Tiers of Restriction in the Higher Education Sector

Higher Education Providers (HEPs) in England are subject to education tiers of restriction relating to teaching provision, ranging from Tier 1 (default position with blended learning including face-to-face) to Tier 4 (the majority of provision should be online). For a full explanation of these tiers please see the ‘Higher education: reopening buildings and campuses’ guidance

For the Autumn term, the proportion of HEPs reporting to be in Tier 1 was highest at the beginning of the reporting period at 65% in the 7 days to 4 November, decreasing each week to a low of 50% in the week to 16 December. The proportion of HEPs reporting to be in education tiers of restriction 2 to 4 gradually increased across the Autumn term.

We do not report HE tiers of restriction for the Spring term because the national lockdown from 6 January and updated DfE guidance for providers supersedes the tiered restrictions in place during the Autumn term.

Other Sources of Data on COVID-19 in Higher Education Settings

This is the second time that data relating to COVID-19 cases among HE students and staff has been published as official statistics.

Other data sources (published or upcoming) relating to  COVID-19 in HE settings include:

  • DfE’s COVID mass testing data in education presents the numbers of tests conducted at HE specific settings as part of the rapid lateral flow test programme launched in HE in December.
  • The Department of Health and Social Care's NHS Test and Trace publication includes information on the use of rapid asymptomatic testing (LFDs) across different settings including higher education. For more information please see the weekly rapid asymptomatic testing publication (the section Latest report contains the latest report).

These data sources present information on COVID-19 cases and positivity by age group, but HE students (or staff) cannot be identified within the age groups:

Help and support


Find out how and why we collect, process and publish these statistics.

Ad hoc official statistics

Ad hoc official statistics are one off publications that have been produced as far as possible in line with the Code of Practice for Statistics.

This can be broadly interpreted to mean that these statistics are:

  • managed impartially and objectively in the public interest
  • meet identified user needs
  • produced according to sound methods
  • well explained and readily accessible

Find out more about the standards we follow to produce these statistics through our Standards for official statistics published by DfE guidance.

Contact us

If you have a specific enquiry about Coronavirus (COVID-19) Reporting in Higher Education Providers statistics and data:

Higher Education COVID Analysis Team

Contact name: Mark Walsh
Telephone: 07384 872 520

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