Academic Year 2020/21

Higher Level Learners in England

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Published

Introduction

This statistics publication presents an overview of participation and achievements in higher level learning at Further Education Providers (FEPs) and Higher Education Providers (HEPs) for English-domiciled learners in England in the academic year 2020/21. This is the second Higher Level Learners (HLL) publication; the first iteration was published in October 2021 as an ad hoc statistic and covered up to the academic year 2018/19.

Throughout this publication, higher-level learning refers to learning at National Qualifications Framework (NQF) levels 4 to 8. Qualifications covered are at a higher level than A levels or equivalent, and include a range of qualification aims, such as foundation degrees, first degrees and Doctorates.

Characteristic breakdowns for entrants, enrolments and qualifiers can be found in the underlying data files.

This series has now become a regular official statistics series and this release has been published on an experimental basis. DfE welcomes feedback. If you have any comment, please email  he.statistics@education.gov.uk.


Headline facts and figures - 2020/21

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About this release

Introduction

These statistics provide a holistic view of higher-level learning across the further and higher education sectors. All types of learning are covered, including OfS-recognised higher education (recognised by the Office for Students for funding purposes and generally eligible for student loan support), Apprenticeships (funded by the Education and Skills Funding Agency and employers, where students earn whilst learning) and institutional credit (bite-sized, standalone modules of learning which are not regarded as full qualifications).

The statistics show how higher-level skills provision was organised in 2020/21 and aid our understanding of the potential impacts of the government’s skills reforms. In particular, it will assist future policy understanding for Higher Technical Qualification (HTQ) reform and the flexible Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE). 

The publication presents analysis of the further and higher education sectors after combining two separate data sources:

  • The Education and Skills Funding Agency’s (ESFA) Individualised Learner Record (ILR) data for FEPs, and
  • The Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) Student and Alternative Student records for HEPs.

Statistics on learning in further and higher education have typically been published as separate publications. This makes it complicated to quantify the totality of learning that happens at education levels 4 to 8. Combined FE and HE statistics are particularly important for understanding learning at education levels 4 and 5, as this is delivered roughly equally across both sectors.

Coverage

This release refers only to learners in England doing study aims at education levels 4 to 8

Analysis is presented for English-domiciled learners to reflect funding eligibility more closely and allow for consistent comparisons across both HESA and ILR sources.

Most of the data included in this release refers to academic year 2020/21. Time series data for academic years 2015/16, 2016/17, 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2019/20 has also been included at summary level.

COVID-19 impacts

HESA published a COVID-19  insight brief that analyses the impact of the pandemic on student data and trends across the years of enrolments and qualifications across various characteristics.

The varying COVID-19 restrictions will also have impacted on apprenticeships and traineeship learning as well as provider reporting behaviour via the Individualised Learner Record. Therefore, extra care should be taken in comparing and interpreting data for academic years 2019/20 and 2020/21 in this release.

Background

To produce these statistics, information has been standardised across both the ILR and HESA datasets. Extensive data processing is required to harmonise the information across the HESA and ILR data and remove duplicate records.

Learners can be recorded twice through both collections and duplicates have been removed. Where there was duplication of learners across the ILR and HESA records, the HESA record was retained. The only exception to this was in the case of Apprenticeships, where the ILR record is considered the authoritative record of the learning.

Apprenticeships are a count of programmes recorded in the ILR and undertaken in an academic year. An Apprenticeship programme can contain multiple component qualifications, which make up part of the overarching Apprenticeship framework or standard. In line with other official statistics publications on Apprenticeships, the overarching programme is counted rather than the component qualifications. Component qualifications like degrees would normally be classed under OfS-recognised HE learning, but the overarching Apprenticeship programmes are prioritised as the type of higher-level learning in this release. 

Apprenticeships are included in this release if they were at National Qualifications Framework (NQF) levels 4 and above. Counts differ slightly to other official statistics publications on Apprenticeships due to the restriction of English-domiciled learners only in this release.

This publication can only report the higher-level learning that is recorded in administrative data held by government. There is likely to be some unfunded-learning in FE providers that is not recorded as it is only mandatory for providers to record information in the ILR for their ESFA-funded learners. There may also be higher-level learning in the private sector that is not recorded in administrative data held by government.  This means that the “Other Higher level” category is a lower bound estimate. 

Rounding and suppression

The Code of Practice for Official Statistics requires DfE to take reasonable steps to ensure that its published or disseminated statistics protect confidentiality.

Throughout the publication, all numbers are rounded to the nearest 5 to preserve confidentiality. Percentages are calculated on pre-rounded data but are not published if they are fractions of a small group of people (fewer than 22.5).

Due to rounding, it is possible that the sum of the category percentages may not always total to 100%.

Time series (including mode of study)

Between the academic years 2019/20 and 2020/21, the total number of English-domiciled entrants to higher-level learning in England has increased by 12% , from 769,105 to 860,540.  This was mostly driven by increases in OfS-recognised HE at levels 6 and 7 and Apprenticeships at levels 4 to 7. 

Across the timeseries between academic years 2015/16 and 2020/21, the total number of English-domiciled entrants to higher-level learning in England has increased by 18%, from 728,140 to 860,540. This was mostly driven by increases in OfS-recognised HE at levels 6 and 7 and Apprenticeships at levels 4 to 7. The number of entrants at level 4 increased by 4%, but at level 5 decreased by 16%.

Entrants to Apprenticeships have more than tripled over the period (from 26,870 in 2015/16 to 97,490 in 2020/21). Increases in Apprenticeships occurred at all levels, with level 4 having the largest increase in entrants (by 22,195). 

Entrants to OfS-recognised HE at education levels 4 to 8 increased overall, but varied by mode of study – the number of full-time entrants increased by 17% since 2015/16 (from 474,835 to 557,630 in 2020/21) while part-time entrants decreased by 1% (from 148,635 to 147,415 over the same period). 

Part-time entrants to OfS-recognised HE at levels 4 to 5 showed the largest proportional change since 2015/16 compared to all other levels (41% decrease compared with a 1% decrease at level 6, a 20% increase at level 7 and a 12% increase at level 8).

Part-time entrants to OfS-recognised HE in 2020/21 increased 15% from the previous year, after decreasing every year since 2015/16.

Provider type

Provider type refers to the provider the learner is registered with. This is not necessarily the provider where the learning is taking place. For example, if a franchising arrangement existed between a HEP (registering provider) and a further education college (delivering the learning), the learner is reported under the HEP provider type. In previous years DfE estimates that over 20,000 higher-level entrants who were registered in HEPs were taught at a franchise partner which was not a HEP.

Of the 860,540 English-domiciled higher-level entrants in England in 2020/21: 

  • 86% (738,225) were registered at HEPs, 
  • 6% (53,500) were registered at further education colleges, 
  • 7% (59,270) were registered at private training providers in the FE sector, and 
  • 1% (9,540) were registered at other provider types.

Level 4 and 5 provision was more evenly distributed amongst different provider types than higher levels of provision, which are almost exclusively offered at HEPs.  27% of higher-level entrants at level 4 and 41% of higher-level entrants at level 5 were registered at HEPs, compared with 96% of higher-level entrants at levels 6 and above. There was a noticeably higher proportion of level 4 and 5 learners registered at private training providers in the FE sector which is largely driven by the higher proportion of apprenticeships at these levels. 

Qualification aim

The qualification aim (or study aim) is what the learner is aiming to achieve from their studies.  This may differ to what they actually achieve when they complete their studies. The learner may achieve a level 4 to 8 qualification, or alternatively accrue some institutional credit at one of those levels from 4 to 8.

There were 68,535 English-domiciled learners entering level 4 in England in 2020/21. At this level, the most common qualification aim was Apprenticeships (46%).

There were 73,500 English-domiciled learners entering level 5 in England in 2020/21. At this level, the most common qualification aims were Apprenticeships (37%), foundation degrees (25%) and Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) (15%).

92% of the 465,210 English-domiciled learners entering level 6 in England in 2020/21 were aiming for a first degree (excluding integrated Master’s degree).

Funding source of tuition fees

Some learners in the HESA and ILR data are recorded as having an unknown funding source and this occurs more often at different levels of learning. In 2020/21, 3% (27,880) of higher-level entrants were recorded as having an unknown funding source. However, 10% (14,600‬) of level 4 and 5 entrants had an unknown funding source, compared to 1% (5,190) for level 6. These differences are due to FEPs being more likely to report incomplete data on funding source to the ILR. To allow for meaningful comparisons across learning types, the following percentages are based on learners whose funding source is known.

OfS-recognised HE refers to qualifications that are classed as recognised HE for Office for Students (OfS) funding purposes (as defined in Annex B here). For OfS-recognised HE learning, student loans were the most common source of funding at each level from 4 to 6, but in smaller proportions at levels 4 and 5. 

Of the 685,775 OfS-recognised HE English-domiciled higher-level entrants in England in 2020/21 with known funding source, 

  • At level 4, 52% had a student loan as their primary source of tuition fees, 34% had no award or financial backing. 15% had their fees funded by other sources (including from employers or other government sources, for example, relevant health care courses) or had no course fees.
  • At level 5, 67% had a student loan as their primary source of tuition fees, 16% had no award or financial backing, 17% had their fees funded by other sources or had no course fees.
  • At level 6, 85% had a student loan as their primary source of tuition fees, 12% had no award or financial backing, 3% had their fees funded by other sources or had no course fees.

For other higher-level courses that were not OfS-recognised, there was a total of 5,910 English domiciled higher-level entrants who took out an Advanced Learner Loan (ALL) as their primary source of tuition fees in 2020/21. ALLs are available from Student Finance England for those aged 19 or above on the first day of their course to help cover the costs of a level 3, 4, 5 or 6 qualification at an approved college or training provider in England.  For more information on advanced learners loans, including funding rules and qualifications available for funding, please see here.

Counts of learners funding their tuition with student loans and Advanced Learner Loans (ALLs) differ slightly to those published by the Student Loans Company (SLC). Refer to the methodology section at the end of this page for more details.

Age

Age refers to the learner’s age at the start of the academic year. A very small number of learners (75 entrants) had unknown age. The following percentages are based on learners where age is known.

There were 860,465  English-domiciled learners entering higher-level learning in England in 2020/21 with known age:

  • Entrants to levels 4 and 5 were more likely to be older than those entering level 6. Most entrants to level 4 (80%) and level 5 (82%) were aged 21 and above, compared to 39% of entrants at level 6.
  • Entrants to OfS-recognised HE learning were more likely to be younger than those entering other learning types. 56% of OfS-recognised HE entrants were aged 21 and above, compared to 89% for Apprenticeships, 98% for institutional credit in HEPs and 87% for other higher-level learning.
  • Almost all (98%) of the level 5 Apprenticeship starts were aged 21 and above, compared to 85% for level 4 Apprenticeship starts, 77% for level 6 Apprenticeship starts and 95% for level 7 Apprenticeship starts.

Sex

The number of entrants with unknown sex has been suppressed (c), more information about rounding and suppression can be found in the methodology section. The following percentages are based on learners where sex is known. ‘Other’ sex can be recorded in the HESA record, but is not collected in the ILR.

There were 860,540 English-domiciled learners entering higher-level learning in England in 2020/21 with known sex:

  • Entrants were more likely to be female at every level. Levels 4 (45%) and 8 (47%) had the highest proportion of male entrants.
  • Entrants were more likely to be female for each learning type. Apprenticeships had the highest proportion of male entrants (45%). 
  • There were more than twice as many females as males at level 5 Apprenticeships.

Ethnicity

Some learners are recorded as having unknown ethnicity, and this occurs more often for certain types of learning. In 2020/21, 2% (18,390) of learners entering all types of higher-level study were recorded as having unknown ethnicity. However, 3% (3,060) of Apprenticeship starts had unknown ethnicity compared to 2% (13,210) for OfS-recognised HE. To allow for meaningful comparisons across learning types, the following percentages are based on learners where ethnicity is known.

There were 842,150‬ English-domiciled learners entering higher-level study in England in 2020/21 with known ethnicity:

  • Level 6 had higher proportions of entrants from Asian (14%), Black (10%), Mixed (5%) and Other (2%) ethnic backgrounds compared to all other levels. 69% of entrants to level 6 were from White backgrounds.
  • OfS-recognised HE had higher proportions of entrants from Asian (14%), Black (9%), Mixed (5%) and Other (2%) ethnic backgrounds compared to all other learning types. 70% of entrants to OfS-recognised HE learning were from White backgrounds.

Disability

Disability is based on the learners own self-assessment and includes those with learning difficulties.

There were 860,540 English-domiciled learners entering higher-level study in England in 2020/21:

  • Entrants to levels 4 and 5 were less likely to have reported a disability compared to other levels. 13% of level 4 and level 5 entrants had reported a disability compared to 17% for level 6.
  • Entrants to Apprenticeships were less likely to have reported a disability compared to other learning types. 9% of entrants to Apprenticeships had reported a disability, compared to 17% of entrants to OfS-Recognised HE learning.

Region of domicile

Region of domicile has been derived from the location of the learner’s permanent home address before starting their course. A very small proportion of learners (1,260 entrants) had unknown domicile. The following percentages are based on learners where region of domicile is known.

There were 859,280‬ English-domiciled learners entering higher-level study in England in 2020/21 with known region of domicile:

  • London was the region of domicile with the highest proportion of entrants to each level. Levels 6 (23%), 7 (23%) and 8 (23%) had higher proportions of entrants domiciled in London compared to levels 4 (16%) and 5 (18%).
  • The North East was the region of domicile with the lowest proportion of entrants. 4% of all entrants were domiciled in the North East.
  • The regions of domicile with the highest proportions of Apprenticeship starts were the South East (16%), London (15%) and the North West (14%).
  • Those starting Apprenticeships were less likely to come from London when compared to those entering OfS-recognised HE. 15% of Apprenticeship starts came from London compared to 23% for OfS-recognised HE entrants.

Disadvantage (Index of Multiple Deprivation, IMD)

The Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) quintile of learners has been derived from the neighbourhood of the learner’s permanent home address before starting their course. 

The English indices of deprivation (IMD) is maintained by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and applies only to those domiciled in England. Data displayed in this publication relate to IMD 2015. Quintile 1 areas are considered to be the most deprived, ascending to quintile 5 areas which are considered to be the least deprived.

A very small proportion of learners had unknown IMD domicile (1,260 entrants). The following percentages are based on learners where IMD domicile is known.

There were 859,280 English-domiciled learners entering higher-level study in England in 2020/21 with known IMD domicile,

  • Entrants to levels 4, 5 and 6 were more likely to have come from deprived neighbourhoods (IMD quintile 1) compared to levels 7 and 8. 21% of entrants from level 4 to 6 came from IMD quintile 1 neighbourhoods compared to 15% for levels 7 and 8.
  • Entrants to OfS-recognised HE learning were more likely to have come from deprived neighbourhoods (IMD quintile 1) compared to those starting level 4-7 Apprenticeships (there are no level 8 Apprenticeships). 20% of entrants to OfS-recognised HE learning came from IMD quintile 1 neighbourhoods compared to 16% for Apprenticeship starts.

Subject

Subjects have been categorised using the Common Aggregation Hierarchy (CAH) level 1, which was the classification used for HEPs. The Learn Direct Classification System (LDCS) codes and sector subject area categories used in FE providers included in the ILR have been mapped to the closest available  Common Aggregation Hierarchy (CAH) . See the “Data processing” section in the methodology notes for more details of this mapping.

There were 860,540 English-domiciled learners entering higher-level study in England in 2020/21:

  • Business and management was the most popular subject area for entrants at levels 4 and 5. This was also true for level 6, but the distribution across subjects at this level was more balanced. Subjects allied to medicine and Psychology were the most popular subject areas for levels 7 and 8 respectively.
  • Just under half (49%) of Apprenticeship starts were in Business and management. 53% of entrants to institutional credit in HEPs were in the Subjects allied to medicine subject group.

Technical education route for Level 4 and 5 courses

The Sainsbury Review and Post-16 Skills Plan set out fifteen technical routes describing occupations that require technical and higher technical education. Reforms to higher technical education include the introduction of Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) from September 2022 onwards. HTQs are qualifications at levels 4 and 5 that have been assessed by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) to meet employer-led occupational standards within the technical routes. 

In this publication, level 4 and 5 provision has been mapped to the fifteen technical education routes to give a broad indication of current supply of technical learning in these areas.  The routes have been mapped to the new CAH subject coding system used by HESA and this mapping has been created internally within DfE. Data on Apprenticeships and institutional credit learning are excluded from this section. Full details of the methodology used is described in the “Methodology” notes. The mapping is not the same as the approval process for HTQs used by the IfATE  employer led approvals system. Counts provided in each technical route in this publication are based on subject classifications rather than an assessment of whether qualifications meet the employer-led occupational standards within the routes. 

There were 28,130 English-domiciled learners entering level 4 study in England in 2020/21 (excluding Apprenticeships and institutional credit aims). At this level, 90% were in a technical education route. The most popular subject area for technical education routes at level 4 was Care services (15%).

For the 44,140 English-domiciled learners entering level 5 in England in 2020/21 (excluding Apprenticeships and institutional credit aims), 93% were in a technical education route. The most popular subject area for technical education routes at level 5 was Business and administration (31%).

Equivalent or lower qualification (ELQ) status

Access to student finance can be impacted by whether the relevant course is at the same or below the level of an award the learner already holds. This is determined by the Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) status.   This information is derived for OfS-recognised HE learners as prior qualifications are less well recorded on entry to other learning types.

Some learners are recorded as having unknown qualification on entry status and this occurs more often at different levels of learning. In 2020/21, 7% of OfS-recognised HE entrants were recorded as having an unknown ELQ status. However, 12% of level 4 and 11% of level 5 entrants had an unknown ELQ status compared to 2% for level 7. These differences are due to FEPs being more likely to report incomplete entry qualification data to the ILR. To allow for meaningful comparisons across learning types, the following percentages are based on learners where ELQ status is known. Caution should be applied when interpreting these statistics due to the high level of unknowns.

There were 657,850 English-domiciled learners entering OfS-recognised HE in England in 2020/21 with known ELQ status. Level 4 (19%) and 5 (13%) entrants were more likely to be aiming for an ELQ that they already held compared to level 6 (5%) entrants. This may be driven by level 4 and 5 entrants being older and so would therefore be more likely to be retraining compared to level 6 entrants.

Achievements

Achievements refers to learners who obtained a qualification at some point during the academic year stated. Achievements data is being published for the first time in this release, further breakdowns by  characteristic can be found in the underlying data.

Covid-19 impacts on achievements

A number of providers experienced administrative hold-ups related to the COVID-19 pandemic which began in the 2019/20 academic year. As such, some achievements that were not reported in the 2019/20 academic year were carried over to 2020/21. Hence caution should be taken when comparing and interpreting data from the academic years 2019/20 and 2020/21.

Headline data

Between academic years 2019/20 and 2020/21, the total number of English-domiciled achievements in higher-level learning in England has increased by 9%, from 505,425 to 549,230. This was mostly driven by increased in OfS-recognised HE at level 6 and 7 and apprenticeships at levels 4 to 7. The number of achievements at level 4 had the largest percentage increase of 19% and level 6 has the largest absolute increase of 17,865.

Across the timeseries between academic years 2015/16 and 2020/21, the total number of English-domiciled achievements in higher-level learning in England has increased by 9%, from 501,980 to 549,230. This was mostly driven by increases in OfS-recognised HE at level 7 and Apprenticeships at levels 4 to 7. The number of achievements at level 4 increased by 5%, but at level 5 decreased by 18%. The decrease in achievements at level 5 is driven by a decrease in OfS Recognised HE  (by 14,125).

Apprenticeship achievements have more than quadrupled over the period (from 6,885 in 2015/16 to 30,225 in 2020/21). Increases in Apprenticeships occurred at all levels, with level 4 having the largest increase in achievements (by 9,110).

Subject

There were 549,230 English-domiciled higher-level study achievements in England in 2020/21:

  • Business and management was the most popular subject area for achievements at levels 4 and 5. This was also true for level 6, but the distribution across subjects at this level was more balanced. Education and teaching, and Psychology were the most popular subject areas for levels 7 and 8 respectively.
  • Over half (53%) of Apprenticeship achievements were in Business and management. Just over 40% of Other Higher Level achievements were also in Business and management.

Region of domicile

Region of domicile has been derived from the location of the learner’s permanent home address before starting their course. A very small proportion of learners(1,935 achievements) had unknown domicile. The following percentages are based on learners where region of domicile is known.

There were 549,230 English-domiciled achievements at higher-level study in England in 2020/21 with known region of domicile:

  • London was the region of domicile with the highest proportion of achievements at each level. Levels 6 (21%), 7 (23%) and 8 (23%) had higher proportions of achievements domiciled in London compared to levels 4 (16%) and 5 (18%).
  • The North East was the region of domicile with the lowest proportion of achievements, this is consistent across all types of study. 5% of all achievements were domiciled in the North East. 
  • The South East and North West were the regions of domicile with the highest proportion of Apprenticeship achievements. With 16% and 15% of Apprenticeship achievements respectively.
  • London was the region of domicile with the highest proportion of OfS Recognised HE achievements (22%).

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Methodology

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

Official statistics

These are Official Statistics and have been produced in line with the Code of Practice for Official 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.

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If you have a specific enquiry about Higher Level Learners in England statistics and data:

HE Participation and Provider Statistics Team

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