Autumn and Spring Term 2020/21

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Reporting in Higher Education Providers

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This ad hoc statistics publication provides a summary of confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) cases known to higher education providers between 1 August 2020 and 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. 

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 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 Office for Students in October 2020 were invited to participate, except for further education colleges. The total number of providers in scope was 237. 

‘Case’ here means a positive test result known to providers and reported to DfE through the Office for Students reporting tool. A ‘confirmed’ case between 1 August 2020 and 24 January 2021 means one which had been identified by a positive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test result. From 25 January the definition of ‘confirmed’ changed to include any cases identified by positive lateral flow device (LFD) test results. See ‘Background to COVID-19 testing in HE' below.

It should be noted when interpreting the data that the number of confirmed cases reported in this release will depend on three key factors beyond the 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; and
  3. The management of the pandemic. In particular, where students and staff were asked not to be ‘on site’ it is likely that fewer infections would have been reported to providers. On the other hand, the departure of students for the winter break and their subsequent return in the Spring term has been accompanied by a rapid asymptomatic testing strategy. This would have led to higher detection rates, including asymptomatic symptoms than earlier in the Autumn term.

For these reasons it is expected 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. 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 Office for Students reporting tool. It is unclear if providers de-duplicate before reporting the data via the reporting tool. No further de-duplication can be carried out once the data has been uploaded by providers. 

Background to 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.

Until 26 January 2021 students or staff testing positive from a lateral flow test were advised to take a confirmatory polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. 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.

From 27 January 2021 the requirement for confirmatory PCR tests following positive LFD tests was temporarily suspended except in certain use cases:

  • Self reporting LFDs
  • Tests conducted on cross channel hauliers

For more information see NHS Test and Trace weekly statistics on rapid asymptomatic testing).

From the week beginning 25 January we therefore asked providers to consider a positive test from a lateral flow test to be ‘confirmed’. This introduced a second discontinuity in the series.

Download associated files

Headline facts and figures - 2020/21

  • Between 1 August 2020 and 3 February 2021, there were 72,202 confirmed cases of COVID-19 known to providers.
  • There were 59,615 confirmed cases of COVID-19 known to providers for the Autumn term (defined as 1 August to 21 December).


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