Higher-level learners in England: Methodology



This document contains supporting information for the statistical release ‘Higher Education Learners in England, 2018 to 2019’, including further detail on the background to the publication, data sources, data processing and data quality of these statistics overall.

Background to the publication

This ad hoc statistical publication presents an overview of participation in higher level learning at Further Education Providers (FEPs) and Higher Education Providers (HEPs) for English-domiciled learners in England in 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.

The 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 2018/19 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 coverage has focused on English-domiciled learners because this is the group most likely to be impacted by the reform.

Previous research

This is the first time the Department for Education has published this holistic view of higher-level learning, encompassing NQF levels 4 to 8. There have however been recent examples of research published by both the Gatsby Foundation and the Department that provided a full mapping of Level 4 and 5 technical education that has been applied in this publication. The data in those reports referred to the academic years 2015/16 and 2016/17 in each respective release.

Prior to those publications, the nearest example to this publication, which estimated the totality of higher-level learning including provision in the FE sector, was the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ research report Understanding higher education in further education colleges.

Other related statistical releases

Official statistics are published separately each year on further and higher education using the same ILR and HESA records that are the basis for ‘Higher-level learners in England’, these are:

  • Further education and apprenticeships data published by the Department for Education using Individualised Learner Record (ILR) data: Statistics: further education and skills
  • Statistics on students at higher education providers published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), available through HESA’s Student Open Data pages: HE Student Data | HESA

The statistics in ‘Higher-level learners in England’ may show differing patterns to those publications. This new analysis removes some duplication from the underpinning data sources. Counts of Apprenticeships also differ slightly to those available in the publication referenced above due to the restriction of English-domiciled learners in this release.

Statistics are also published that show the student loans funding that is paid to learners in Further and Higher Education. Student loan counts in those publications are different to those included in this publication. More details are provided under the ‘Data quality and comparability’ section.

Data sources

The publication presents analysis of the FE and HE 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 ‘Student Alternative’ records for HEPs.

HESA's ‘Student’ and ‘Student Alternative’ records

The HESA ‘Student’ and ‘Student Alternative’ records collect information on all students at higher education providers in England who follow courses that lead to the award of a qualification or provider credit. The data collections include information about students’:

  • Personal characteristics
  • Place of study
  • Courses and modules they are undertaking
  • Entry qualifications and socio-economic backgrounds

The HESA student record comes available in January after the end of each academic year. 

ESFA's Individualised Learner Record

The Individualised Learner Record (ILR) collection is based on data returns to the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) from FE education colleges and training providers in England about learners in the FE system and the learning undertaken by each of them.

The ILR is a complete record of government funded learning in the further education sector. It is not mandatory for providers to return information on their unfunded learners, which means that the ILR may underestimate the true level of higher-level learning happening in the FE sector.

The ILR includes a ‘Learner HE’ entity. This must be returned for learners doing courses at NQF levels 4 to 8 at FE providers and that meet certain conditions set by the Office for Students. In this publication we refer to these learners as doing ‘OfS Registered HE’. The ‘Learner HE’ entity must be completed for all such learners doing these courses irrespective of whether they received any funding. Details of the coverage of the ‘Learner HE’ entity are available in the ILR specification.

The ILR is collected each month over each academic year. This publication is based on the final ILR collection, R14, which is compiled in the November after the end of each academic year.

Data processing

To produce these statistics, information has been standardised across both the ILR and HESA datasets. 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 to be the authoritative record of the learning.

Examples of some of the standardisation that has happened in the analysis are included below.

Counting learners

The count of students in this publication is based on student enrolments. It is possible for a student to enrol on more than one course in an academic year and where this is the case the student is counted for each enrolment. 

Data that includes subject is a count of full-person equivalent (FPE). This means that where an enrolment spans multiple subjects, it is apportioned to reflect the proportion of the enrolment that relates to each subject (e.g. a student enrolled in a course equally distributed between engineering & technology  and computer science is counted with 0.5 FPE for each subject).

Population ‘in-scope’

Students in the HESA ‘Student’ and ‘Student Alternative’ records were included if they met the following criteria:

  • The student is included in the standard registration population.
  • The student is studying at a Higher Education Provider based in England.
  • The student was domiciled in England prior to study.

The ILR is first restricted to include only those learning aims with a notional level of 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or H. All other learning aims are excluded.

Students in the ILR undertaking OfS recognised HE qualifications were included if they were part of the standard registration population and were domiciled in England prior to study.

Students undertaking other higher-level learning were included if they were domiciled in England and either of the following conditions are met:

  • The student was on an apprenticeship programme and active in the academic year.
  • The student was funded by the ESFA or via an advanced learning loan and was student active in the academic year.
  • The student was self-funded and passed the funding qualification period. The funding qualification period is 42 days for courses of duration 168 days or more, 14 days for courses with duration between 14 and 167 days, and 1 day for courses lasting fewer than 14 days.

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

Defining Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are counted as single programmes of learning using the programme aim information in the ILR. 

Apprenticeship programmes often include several component qualifications. The programme aim provides a summary of these components and is counted as a single enrolment. 

If an Apprentice is studying a component of their programme at a higher education provider, for example a first degree, then they may appear in both the ILR and HESA records. In this situation the ILR information for the overall Apprenticeship programme takes precedence.

Defining OfS-Recognised HE

Qualifications that are classed as Recognised HE for Office for Students (OfS) funding purposes. Such qualifications are generally eligible for student loan support, such as foundation degrees, Higher National Certificates (HNCs)s and first degrees. Further information can be found in Annex B of the Higher Education Students Early Statistics survey 2021-22 (HESES21): Guidance for providers - Office for Students.

Defining Institutional credit in Higher Education Providers (HEPs)

Learning in HEPs identified as bite-sized, standalone modules of study. Covers a wide range of short-term learning; examples include Continuing Professional Development (CPD) learning for healthcare professionals, such as Advanced Skills in Clinical Assessment at Anglia Ruskin University, or standalone languages modules like those taken in King’s College London Modern Language Centre. These are not regarded as full qualifications.

Institutional credit has been defined as COURSEAIM codes 'D90', 'E90', 'L90', 'L91', 'M90', 'M91','H90', 'H91', 'I90', 'I91', 'J90', 'C90' in the HESA 'Student' and 'Student Alternative' records. 

Defining other higher level learning

Other HE is defined as learning at levels 4 to 8 outside of OfS-recognised HE, apprenticeships and institutional credit in HEPS. These courses are generally not eligible for student loan support, but could be eligible for Advanced Learner Loans (ALLs). In addition, some students aged 16-18 on approved courses regulated by Ofqual can be funded by the ESFA. Full details of the funding rules can be found here

In the ILR, it is not mandatory for providers to return information on their unfunded learners, which means that data reported under this category may be an underestimate.

Defining level of study

NQF level is derived differently for HESA and ILR records. In the HESA student records, level is based on the course aim associated with the enrolment. The mapping of course aim to level is outlined in Table 1

Table 1: mapping of course aim to qualification level

Qualification levelCourse aims
Level 4C20, C30, C80, C90, C99, C42, C41, C43, C77, C78
Level 5J20, J26, J10, J16, J30, J80, J90, J99, I60, I61, I70, I71, I72, I73, I76, I78, I80, I81, I90, I91, I99, J42, I74, J41, I79, J43, J45, J76
Level 6H00, H11, H12, H16, H18, H22, H23, H50, H71, H60, H61, H62, H79, H70, H72, H76, H78, H80, H81, H88, H90, H91, H99, H42, H41, H43, I00, I11, I12, I16 
Level 7L00, L80, L90, L91, L99, M00, M01, M02, M10, M11, M16, M40, M41, M42, M43, M44, M45, M50, M70, M71, M72, M73, M76, M78, M79, M80, M86, M88, M90, M91, M99, M22, M26, M28
Level 8D00, D01,D90, E00 , E40, E43, E90

The ILR includes information on the qualification level of learning aims. This information is taken directly from the learning aims reference service.

Defining 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. DfE estimates that in 2018/19, 21,000 higher-level entrants who were registered in HEPs were taught at a franchise partner which was not a HEP.

Defining subject area

Subject area has been categorised using the Joint Academic Coding System (JACs) subject areas. 

The ILR does not use JACs to categorise learning aims into subject areas . ILR records have been mapped to JACs using two methods:

  • OfS-recognised HE qualifications include LearnDirect Classification System (LDCS) subject codes. Where these were available, LDCS codes were mapped to JACS using a lookup published by OfS.
  • For all other ILR records, the sector subject areas (SSAs) recorded for each learning aim were mapped to JACs using the mapping in the Table 2. The preparation for life and work SSA is retained as a separate category in the subject classification as there are no equivalent subject codes in the JACs system

Learning captured in the HESA student record is recorded using the JACs system.

Table 2: mapping sector subject area tier 2 to JACs subject code

JACS subjectSector subject area Tier 2
(2) Subjects allied to medicine1.1 Medicine and dentistry
1.2 Nursing, and subjects and vocations allied to medicine
1.3 Health and social care
1.4 Public services 
1.5 Child development and well being
(4) Veterinary science3.3 Animal care and veterinary science
(5) Agriculture & related subjects3.1 Agriculture
3.2 Horticulture and forestry
3.4 Environmental conservation 
(6) Physical sciences 2.1 Science
(7) Mathematical sciences2.2 Mathematics and statistics
(8) Computer science6.1 ICT practitioners 
6.2 ICT for users 
(9) Engineering & technology4.1 Engineering 
4.2 Manufacturing technologies 
4.3 Transportation operations and maintenance
(A) Architecture, building & planning5.1 Architecture
5.2 Building and construction 
5.3 Urban, rural and regional planning
(B) Social studies11.1 Geography
11.2 Sociology and social policy
11.3 Politics
11.4 Economics
11.5 Anthropology
(C) Law15.5 Law and legal services
(D) Business & administrative studies7.1 Retailing and wholesaling 
7.2 Warehousing and distribution 
7.3 Service enterprises 
7.4 Hospitality and catering
8.1 Sport, leisure and recreation 
8.2 Travel and tourism
15.1 Accounting and finance
15.2 Administration
15.3 Business management
15.4 Marketing and sales
(E) Mass communications & documentation9.3 Media and communication
9.4 Publishing and information services
(F) Languages12.1 Languages, literature and culture of the British isles
12.2 Other languages, literature and culture
12.3 Linguistics
(G) Historical & philosophical studies10.1 History
10.2 Archaeology and archaeological sciences
10.3 Philosophy
10.4 Theology and religious studies
10.9 History, Philosophy and Theology
(H) Creative arts & design9.1 Performing arts
9.2 Crafts, creative arts and design
(I) Education13.1 Teaching and lecturing
13.2 Direct learning support

Defining technical routes

The JACs and SSA subject classification systems are mapped to technical routes using the information in Tables 3 and 4.

The technical route mapping follows the methodology established in the RCU (Gatsby) research from January 2018, which applies to level 4 and 5 qualifications and takes account of the learner’s subject of study. This was designed to provide evidence to support higher technical education reforms at levels 4 and 5 (see the section on technical education route in the main release for more detail). 

Table 3: mapping JACS principle subject to technical route

Technical routeJACS principal subject (code and description)
Agriculture, Environmental and Animal Care(D0) Broadly-based programmes within agriculture & related subjects
(D1) Pre-clinical veterinary medicine
(D2) Clinical veterinary medicine & dentistry
(D3) Animal science
(D4) Agriculture
(D5) Forestry & arboriculture
(D7) Agricultural sciences
(D9) Others in veterinary sciences, agriculture & related subjects
Business and Administrative(N0) Broadly-based programmes within business & administrative studies 
(N1) Business studies 
(N2) Management studies 
(N6) Human resource management 
(N7) Office skills 
(N9) Others in business & administrative studies 
Catering and HospitalityNA
Childcare and Education(X0) Broadly-based programmes within education
(X1) Training teachers
(X2) Research & study skills in education
(X3) Academic studies in education
(X9) Others in education
Construction(H2) Civil engineering
(K0) Broadly-based programmes within architecture, building & planning
(K1) Architecture
(K2) Building
(K3) Landscape & garden design
(K4) Planning (urban, rural & regional)
(K9) Others in architecture, building & planning
Creative and Design(P0) Broadly-based programmes within mass communications & documentation
(P1) Information services
(P2) Publicity studies
(P3) Media studies
(P4) Publishing
(P5) Journalism
(P9) Others in mass communications & documentation
(W0) Broadly-based programmes within creative arts & design
(W1) Fine art
(W2) Design studies
(W6) Cinematics & photography
(W7) Crafts
(W8) Imaginative writing
(W9) Others in creative arts & design
Digital(I1) Computer science
(I2) Information systems
(I3) Software engineering
(I4) Artificial intelligence
(I5) Health informatics
(I6) Games
(I7) Computer generated visual & audio effects
(I9) Others in Computer sciences
Engineering and Manufacturing(D6) Food & beverage studies
(H0) Broadly-based programmes within engineering & technology
(H1) General engineering
(H3) Mechanical engineering
(H4) Aerospace engineering
(H5) Naval architecture
(H6) Electronic & electrical engineering
(H7) Production & manufacturing engineering
(H8) Chemical, process & energy engineering
(H9) Others in engineering
(J1) Minerals technology
(J2) Metallurgy
(J3) Ceramics & glass
(J4) Polymers & textiles
(J5) Materials technology not otherwise specified
(J6) Maritime technology
(J7) Biotechnology
(J9) Others in technology
Hair and BeautyNA
Health and Science(A0) Broadly-based programmes within medicine & dentistry
(A1) Pre-clinical medicine
(A2) Pre-clinical dentistry
(A3) Clinical medicine
(A4) Clinical dentistry
(A9) Others in medicine & dentistry
(B0) Broadly-based programmes within subjects allied to medicine
(B1) Anatomy, physiology & pathology
(B2) Pharmacology, toxicology & pharmacy
(B3) Complementary medicines, therapies & well-being
(B4) Nutrition
(B5) Ophthalmics
(B6) Aural & oral sciences
(B7) Nursing
(B8) Medical technology
(B9) Others in subjects allied to medicine
(C0) Broadly-based programmes within biological sciences
(C1) Biology
(C2) Botany
(C3) Zoology
(C4) Genetics
(C5) Microbiology
(C7) Molecular biology, biophysics & biochemistry
(C8) Psychology
(C9) Others in Biological Sciences
(F0) Broadly-based programmes within physical sciences
(F1) Chemistry
(F2) Materials science
(F3) Physics
(F4) Forensic & archaeological sciences
(F5) Astronomy
(F6) Geology
(F7) Science of aquatic & terrestrial environments
(F8) Physical geographical sciences
(F9) Others in physical sciences
Legal, Finance and Accounting(M0) Broadly-based programmes within law 
(M1) Law by area 
(M2) Law by topic 
(M9) Others in law 
(N3) Finance 
(N4) Accounting 
Protective ServicesNA
Sales, Marketing and Procurement(N5) Marketing 
Social Care(L5) Social work
Transport and LogisticsNA

Table 4: mapping sector subject area tier 2 principle subject to technical route

Technical routeSector subject area tier 2
Agriculture, Environmental and Animal Care3.1 Agriculture
3.2 Horticulture and forestry
3.3 Animal care and veterinary science
3.4 Environmental conservation 
3.9 Agriculture, Horticulture and Animal Care
Business and Administrative15.2 Administration
15.3 Business management
Catering and Hospitality7.4 Hospitality and catering
Childcare and Education1.5 Child development and well being
13.1 Teaching and lecturing
13.2 Direct learning support
13.9 Education and Training
Construction5.1 Architecture
5.2 Building and construction 
5.3 Urban, rural and regional planning
5.9 Construction, Planning and the Built Environment
Creative and Design9.2 Crafts, creative arts and design
9.3 Media and communication
9.4 Publishing and information services
Digital6.1 ICT practitioners 
Engineering and Manufacturing4.1 Engineering 
4.2 Manufacturing technologies
4.2 Manufacturing technologies 
4.3 Transportation operations and maintenance
4.9 Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies 
Hair and Beauty7.3 Service enterprises 
Health and Science1.1 Medicine and dentistry
1.2 Nursing, and subjects and vocations allied to medicine
2.1 Science
Legal, Finance and Accounting15.1 Accounting and finance
15.5 Law and legal services
Protective Services1.4 Public services 
Sales, Marketing and Procurement15.4 Marketing and sales
Social Care1.3 Health and social care
Transport and Logistics7.2 Warehousing and distribution 

Removing duplication between the ILR and HESA records

It is necessary to clean the data to remove duplicate records. These duplicates can exist in the ILR on occasion when a FE provider reports on learners who have been sub-contracted-in from another provider (the ‘registering provider’). A duplicate record is defined as a pair of records split across the ILR and HESA record with matching:

  • Person Identifiers (PIDs) provided by OfS
  • Year of study
  • Provider
  • Level of study
  • Qualification aim
  • Entrant/ continuing status

Where duplicate records were identified after combining the ILR and HESA data, the HESA record was retained. The only exception to this was in the case of Apprenticeships, where the ILR programme aim is considered to be the authoritative record of the learning.

Data quality and comparability

The levels of missing data vary across the different higher-level learning types. This means that data on learner characteristics in this publication are likely to be more meaningful when making comparisons between learning types, than after these have been aggregated up to make estimates of the learner characteristics profile for all higher-level learning. 

In addition, due to the different data collection systems used to produce this release, there are some differences in the coding frames for certain variables that could have a slight impact on comparability of statistics on student characteristics across higher-level learning types.

Examples are given below of missing data and where comparability of statistics may be impacted.

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 2018/19, 4% (30,935) of higher-level entrants were recorded as having an unknown funding source. However, 13% (18,980) of level 4 and 5 entrants had an unknown funding source, compared to 1% (5,925) 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, percentages are based on learners where funding source is known. 

Estimates of the proportion of learners with tuition fees primarily funded by SLC in this release are lower than those published by the Student Loans Company; this is because our denominator includes learners who may not have met the eligibility criteria for a student loan. In addition,  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), because:

  • Data shown here refers to the primary source of tuition fee, whereas SLC data refers to loan funded students who could take out any size of loan.
  • The SLC data is an administrative data collection and so has slightly different coverage and collection methodology compared to that recorded by providers in the ILR and HESA.

A small minority of ‘other higher-level learners’ have student loans reported as their primary source of tuition fee, which we believe is due to recording errors in the HESA and ILR data collection processes.


Age refers to the learner’s age at the start of the academic year. A very small number of learners (120 entrants) had unknown age. Percentages are based on learners where age is known. 


A very small proportion of learners (95 entrants) had unknown sex. 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.  


Some learners are recorded as having unknown ethnicity, and this occurs more often for certain types of learning. In 2018/19, 2% (14,005) of learners entering all types of higher-level study were recorded as having unknown ethnicity. However, 3% (2,010) of apprenticeship starts had unknown ethnicity compared to 2% (9,750) for recognised HE. To allow for meaningful conclusions across learning types, percentages are based on learners where ethnicity is known.


Disability is based on the learners own self-assessment and includes those with learning difficulties. There are differences in the coding frameworks for disability in ILR and HESA records which may have a slight impact on comparability across the types of higher-level learning.

Region of domicile and Index of Multiple Deprivation

Region of domicile and Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) quintile have been derived from the location of the learner’s permanent home address before starting their course. A very small proportion of learners (4,310 entrants) had unknown domicile. Percentages are based on learners where domicile is known.  

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 has been derived for OfS-recognised HE learners only. Prior qualifications are less well recorded on entry to other learning types.

Some learners are recorded as having unknown qualification on entry, and this occurs more often at different levels of learning. In 2018/19, 6% of OfS-recognised HE entrants were recorded as having an unknown ELQ status. However, 13% of level 4 and 5 entrants had an unknown ELQ status compared to 7% for level 6. 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, 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. 

Disclosure control

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%.