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.
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.
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.
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).