Coronavirus (COVID-19) Reporting in Higher Education Providers


Data Collection

From 20 October 2020 the Office for Students (OfS) has collected data on coronavirus (COVID-19) from Higher Education Providers (HEPs) on behalf of the Department for Education through their COVID-19 reporting tool.

All English HEPs registered on the Office for Students Register as at 20 October 2020 were asked to make a return, with the exception of further education colleges. HEPs registering with the OfS after 20 October were not invited to submit during the period covered by this report.  Of the 237 HEPs in scope, 212 have made at least one submission. This includes all of the larger traditional universities as well as newer, specialist or private HEPs. The HEPs who have not made a submission are small. 

HEPs are asked to provide information on:

  • Numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases known to them.
  • Staff and student headcounts.
  • Estimates for numbers of students known to be self-isolating at the time of each submission.
  • Further contextualising information including the current DfE higher education tier of restriction. These items are defined in the terminology section in the annex.

The data return is not compulsory and the number of HEPs returning each week varies. This was a particular issue at the start of the Spring term as term start dates differ across HEPs. In addition, the first submission by a HEP in the Spring term includes any confirmed cases covering the winter break period (where known to the HEP). This first submission for the term therefore inflates the weekly figures. 113 HEPs made their first Spring term return in the week to 6 January, 64 made their first Spring term return in the week to 13 January, and 6 HEPs made their first Spring term return in the week to 20 January. This issue did not arise in the Autumn term because HEPs submitted a separate ‘baseline’ return for their first return (see ‘Baseline data’).

HEPs individually collate known confirmed cases for staff and students and report these to DfE using the Office for Students COVID-19 reporting tool. It is possible for staff and students to report more than 1 positive test result and it is not clear if HEPs carry out any de-duplication when they report the data. No further de-duplication can be carried out once the HEP has returned their data.

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

Baseline Data

HEPs were asked to provide baseline information in their first return. This covered headcounts for staff (academic and non-academic), students and total confirmed COVID-19 cases known to each HEP between 1 August 2020 and the date of their first submission. 

Ongoing data submissions

Following their initial submission, HEPs were asked to submit daily, Monday to Friday, returning information relating to the previous day, with Monday’s return covering the previous Friday, Saturday and Sunday. From 1 February HEPs have been asked to submit information twice weekly. In these returns HEPs submit on Monday (covering the previous Thursday to Sunday) and Thursday (covering the previous Monday to Wednesday). If a HEP fails to submit on one or more scheduled days, their next return should include the total of all known confirmed cases since their last return.


The OfS COVID-19 reporting tool includes some automated validation checks, some of which prevent submission while others advise the respondent to check their submission.

Additional data checks are carried out after submission to identify potentially erroneous returns, which are then queried with respondents.

Response Rates

Weekly Response Rate

This is calculated as the proportion of HEPs who have submitted at least one return through the OfS COVID-19 reporting tool during the week in question.

Non-Response and Contextualisation

Due to the diverse nature of higher education HEPs, which are highly variable in terms of student numbers and teaching facilities, we do not currently adjust for non-response. The statistics are representative only of the HEPs that have made a return for any given time period. We therefore contextualise each statistic with the number or proportion of HEPs returning data.

Reporting Weeks

For the purpose of this publication we define a ‘reporting week’ as the period from Thursday to the following Wednesday. The first reporting week is 29 October to 4 November 2020. We do not present weekly totals for data collected between 20 October and 28 October due to data quality issues in the first few days of the collection. These were resolved with an update to the OfS COVID-19 reporting tool that was made available to HEPs from 27 October. Confirmed cases reported between 20 and 28 October are included in the grand total. 

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

Total Confirmed Cases Reported

This represents the total number of confirmed cases known to all HEPs and reported between 1 August 2020 and 8 April 2021. It is the sum of the confirmed cases reported in the baseline and the confirmed cases reported in each daily return up to and including those relating to 7 April 2021. 

Total cases for the Autumn term cover the period to 21 December 2020 and total cases for the Spring term cover the period 22 December to 7 April. In their first return, HEPs provide baseline information. This baseline includes total confirmed cases between the period from 1 August 2020 to the date of their first submission. We include all baseline cases in our estimate for the Autumn term total even if the date of first submission falls within the Spring term. Almost all providers made their first return in the Autumn term, but 7 new providers joined the collection in the Spring term. This means that the Autumn term total is slightly inflated (and the Spring term total correspondingly deflated) by any baseline cases at these providers that actually relate to the period between 21 December and the date of their first submission.

There was a pause in collection from 17 December to 4 January (although some providers continued to submit). Providers' first submission in January included any known cases detected during the winter break December, so the Spring term total may be inflated by any cases occurring between 17 December and 21 December (and the Autumn term total correspondingly deflated).

For these reasons the Autumn and Spring term totals should be considered as estimates only.

Weekly Confirmed Cases

This represents the total number of known confirmed cases reported by all HEPs during the reporting week. 

We make no adjustment to account for HEPs failing to submit a daily return. This has the following implication.

Effect of Missing Data Returns (example)

Reporting Week 1Thur2020
 Wk 1 Total140120
Reporting Week 2Thur2040
 Wk 2 Total140160

In this example, HEPs A and B each record 20 confirmed cases per day. HEP A makes all required data returns and records 140 cases for reporting week 1 and reporting week 2. HEP B did not make a return for the Wednesday of reporting week 1, but included Wednesday’s cases in the return for Thursday. This has the effect of depressing HEP B’s total for reporting week 1 and inflating it for reporting week 2.

Estimated COVID-19 Case Rates per 100,000

We estimate weekly case rates for both staff and students. Only those HEPs which have returned both:

  • valid case numbers within the 7-day period, and
  • a valid student or staff headcount at any point

are included in the rate estimate. Where HEPs have submitted multiple headcounts, we take the most recent value submitted before the end of the 7-day period.

The estimated staff rate is the total number of confirmed staff cases at the HEPs in scope divided by the total staff headcount at those HEPs and multiplied by 100,000. 

The estimated student rate is the total number of confirmed student cases at the HEPs in scope divided by the total student headcount at those HEPs and multiplied by 100,000. 

These rates underestimate the true rate, because they assume that all students report every positive test result to their HEP. This may not be true in all cases, and in particular we expect that students not in attendance at their HEP are unlikely to report cases. For this reason, we provide rate estimates for term 1 (when students were more likely to be attending their HEP) but not for term 2 (when HEPs limited student return to in person learning in line with DfE guidance).

Estimated rates for both staff and students are rounded to 1 decimal place.

Estimates for Number of Students Self-isolating

In the Autumn term, HEPs were only asked to report an estimate of the number of students self-isolating if they self-identified as having had more than 25 new confirmed cases in the previous 7 days (although some HEPs returned an estimate voluntarily). In the Spring term, all HEPs were asked to report this estimate.

For HEPs who have reported more than one estimate in the reporting week, we take the most recent reported estimate for each and sum to produce a sector summary. We present the number of HEPs making an estimate in each reporting week to contextualise the estimates.

The data quality of this item is limited because HEPs have advised us that they have incomplete knowledge of numbers self-isolating, and sometimes report ranges of possible values. In these cases, we report the upper bound of the range as overall figures are presumed to be an underestimate.

Due to these data quality issues, published figures are rounded to the nearest hundred, providing an indication of overall numbers and relative change through time but are not considered to be robust below this level.

Higher Education Tiers of Restriction

Higher Education HEPs in England are subject to education tiers of restriction relating to teaching provision, ranging from Tier 1 (default position with blended learning including in person) 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 HEPs that have reported a tier of restriction at any time during the reporting week, we take the most recent reported tier and aggregate to produce a sector summary. HEPs who did not submit a tier of restriction during the reporting week are excluded from the counts. Where a HEP has multiple locations with differing tier levels, the maximum reported tier is used.

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

Estimate of number of students eligible to return to in person teaching

During the Spring term, students were in scope to return to in person teaching in two tranches.

Based on analysis of the 2019/20 HESA student record and excluding distance learners and students studying wholly abroad, DfE estimate that in England out of 1,895,350 students:

  • approximately 19% of students were enrolled on courses in the subjects in scope for face to face learning from January (as set out in the DfE guidance).
  • approximately 49% of students were enrolled on ‘practical’ courses in scope for face to face learning from 8 March.

For the purpose of estimation, Higher Education Classification of Subjects (HECoS) codes were used to identify subjects in scope for in person teaching.  The DfE guidance on student returns in the Spring term identified a set of subjects related to key categories (medicine and dentistry, subjects allied to medicine/health, veterinary science, education (initial teacher training), and social work) for which providers could consider a return to in person teaching from the start of term. DfE's updated guidance on the further return of students from 8 March did not give a list of specific practical or practice-based courses to which students could return, given providers are best-placed to determine which of their courses require in-person teaching and which could reasonably continue online.

The HECoS codes used for this analysis are listed in Annex B.


Annex A: Terminology

HEP – Higher Education Provider. 

Case – ‘Cases’ reported in this publication are confirmed cases known to HEPs and reported through the Office for Students COVID-19 reporting tool for both staff and students. To be ‘confirmed’, a case should have been identified following a positive COVID-19 test result (polymerase chain reaction test (PCR)  only up to 24th January, and PCR or lateral flow test from 25th January).

Staff headcount - defined as all academic and non-academic staff according to the definition given by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), excluding ‘atypical’ staff.

Student headcount - defined as all students registered with the HEP that are currently in the UK and would, if not for the current pandemic, be attending in person.

PCR test - polymerase chain reaction test

LFD – Lateral Flow Device

Annex B: HECoS codes for Estimates of Students in Scope to Return

Due to COVID-19, in line with DfE guidance, not all students were in scope to return to in person teaching in the Spring term.

In January 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) were eligible. More students were in scope to return from 8 March and these included students studying all other subjects with a practical or practice based element (eg creative arts, science).

Higher Education Classification of Subjects (HECoS) codes were used for internal DfE estimates of the approximate proportion of students that would be eligible for return to in person teaching in each of the tranches using the 2019/20 HESA student record. The codes associated with each tranche are listed below.

HECoS codes for January return (Tranche 1)HECoS codes for March return (Tranche 2)