Methodology

Participation measures in higher education

Published

Methodology

Sum of age-specific participation rates

The HEIP measure is a sum of the participation rates for each age from 17 to 30 inclusive. For each age from 17 to 30, the initial participation rate is calculated as the fraction of the academic year population that are initial entrants. These rates are added to create the total HEIP measure. The HEIP measure is not a sum of the total number of initial entrants divided by the total academic year population. Doing this would make the false assumption of an equal likelihood of participation across all ages. Further information about the methodology can be found in the National Statistics Quality Review of Higher Education participation statistics (2003) at: 

[ARCHIVED CONTENT] National Statistics Quality Review of the Initial Entry Rate into Higher Education - The Department for Education (nationalarchives.gov.uk)

Numerator

The numerator for each age-specific rate includes English domiciled entrants to higher education who participate for a minimum period of six months for the first time.  Minimum participation of six months was the recommendation of Professor Brian Ramsden in the National Statistics Quality Review (2003); he stated that there ought to be an: ""actual minimum length of study” of, say, six months, since this is a better measure of “participation” in the sense of engagement with the Higher Education experience."

Available data allow participation for a minimum of six months to be measured for participants at UK higher education providers (HEPs), and at English, Welsh and Scottish Further Education Providers (FEPs). Students at FEPs are included if they were registered on courses designated as National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) level 4 or above, or are listed as Higher Education courses. 

Data referring to Higher Education Providers (HEPs) in the United Kingdom is collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). For Further Education Providers (FEPs) in England data is collected by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), in Wales by the Welsh Government, and in Scotland by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). 

Since 1994/95 HESA has collected data on HE participation from publicly funded UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the annual ‘Student' record. Since 2014/15 information has also been collected about undergraduate students at Alternative Providers (APs) of Higher Education in England, plus Ballet West in Scotland, in the Student Alternative record. Since 2017/18 the AP record has also included postgraduate students at all APs. Now that DfE is assured of the robustness of the newer data from APs, they have been added into the HEIP measure. 

There is less of a distinction between HEIs and APs under the new regulatory regime in England, so student counts for these providers have been combined into a ‘Higher Education Providers’ (HEPs) category in the publication. 

In order to ensure that only initial participants are counted in the HEIP in a given year, algorithms are applied to match back over 12 years for HE data and FE data . This is in addition to filtering based on qualifications declared at entry. This matching looks back over the previous years’ HE and FE datasets and checks whether a student appears in these datasets, recorded as studying at HE level for a minimum period of six months. If so, they are eliminated from the calculations, as they are not initial participants in the current year. Matching the 2017/18 figures back over 12 years ensures that any 30-year-old in the dataset, who has at least six months’ prior HE experience, can be detected all the way back to when they were 18-years-old. The matching algorithms are provided to DfE by the Office for Students (OfS). 

The Academic year 2007/08 was the first year for which this approach was possible (as 12 years’ worth of HE data is available up to that point). In order to provide some time series comparison, and to demonstrate the impact of this change, the 2006/07 figure was also calculated using this methodology – although this used one less year of matching due to data availability. 

Denominator

The denominator for each age-specific rate uses population estimates for England, which were acquired from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) at: 

Analysis of population estimates tool - Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)

Population estimates have been adjusted to an academic year basis using their data on the month of birth for each cohort.

Measurement of initial participation by over 30s

Age-specific participation rates for 17 to 60 year-olds and are not as robust as the figures for the HEIP measure for 17 to 30 year-olds itself, because it is not possible to check as thoroughly whether participants aged 31 to 60 are initial participants. The HEIP estimate for entrants up to age 60 has however been included in the publication to provide additional context on lifelong learning and enable comparability with statistics published by other countries.

Coverage

Initial participants included 

The HEIP measure includes 17 to 30 year-old English domiciled first-time participants in higher education at UK higher education providers (HEPs), and at English, Welsh and Scottish Further Education Providers (FEPs). Students at FEPs are included if they were registered on courses designated as National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) level 4 or above, or are listed as Higher Education courses. 

The coverage of the HEIP measure had been boosted in last year's publication by the inclusion of initial participants registered at additional providers of higher education who have been returning data to the Higher Education Statistic Agency's (HESA) Student Alternative record. This impacts the HEIP measure from 2014/15 onwards, and the Postgraduate Initial Participation (PGIP) measure from 2017/18 onwards. 

The impact of the change in coverage is shown in the headline chart and table of the publication. In the remainder of the publication figures are presented with a break in the series to make clear that figures prior to 2014/15 are on a different basis.

The HEIP measure includes students studying via both Full-time (FT) and Part-time (PT) modes. FT study is defined by the Office for Students (OfS) as attendance at an institution for periods amounting to at least 24 weeks per year, with learning activity amounting to an average of at least 21 hours per week. The PT mode refers to study which is less intensive than this definition. There is no lower limit on the intensity of PT courses for inclusion in the HEIP. 

Initial participants not included 

The HEIP measure does not include English domiciled Higher Education students: 

• at FEPs in Northern Ireland;

• at institutions outside the UK. 

Information on these students is not currently available to the Department in sufficient detail to be included in the calculations. 

Students taking courses outside the UK

Whilst sufficient detail to include initial participants studying wholly overseas in the HEIP measure is not available, we have investigated how much these groups could contribute to the HEIP estimate. 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) produces figures on the
number of students studying wholly overseas by country of origin on their ‘Global Flow of Tertiary-Level
Students’ webpage. Latest data shows that there were an estimated 39,504 UK students studying wholly
overseas in 2018/19. This can be accessed at the following link: 

UIS Statistics (unesco.org) under side menu filters “EDUCATION”, “Other policy relevant indicators” and “Number and rates of international mobile students (inbound and outbound)”

It is estimated that approximately 6,870 of the 39,504 UK students studying wholly overseas in 2018/19 were English domiciled initial entrants to higher education. This could add an estimated 1.1 percentage points to the initial participation rate.

Relevance to users

Why was the HEIP measure introduced?

In the National Statistics Quality Review of 2003, Professor Brian Ramsden surmised that:

"…after the 1997 general election, there was increased policy focus on the idea of "lifelong learning". At that time, the main Departmental measure of HE participation was the Age Participation Index (API), but its restricted coverage (full-time, aged under 21) led the (then) DfEE Analytical Services Branch to start developing new measures, which would for example include the take up of HE by mature students, part-time study, postgraduate study and by students returning to HE in a context of lifelong learning."

The HEIP measure rose in prominence and the public interest as it was used to measure the former Labour Government's Public Service Agreement (PSA) target to progress towards 50% participation in higher education.

Limitations with the HEIP methodology 

When there is steady growth in entry rates for younger age groups (as has been observed over many years for English 18 year-olds), the HEIP method of summing current participation rates will show a higher participation rate than the participation rate for a particular entry cohort. For example, today’s 30 year-olds, will have had a lower initial participation rate when they were aged 18 compared to today’s 18 year-olds. 

A rough estimate of rates for particular entry cohorts can be constructed by summing the initial entry rates across academic years. For example, the 17 year-old entry rate in 2006/07, would be added to the 18 year old rate in 2007/08, and to the 19 year-old rate in 2008/09, and so on.  

Future development of the participation measure

Since passing this milestone of 50% participation, in last year's publication DfE asked users for feedback on the future of the series.

Feedback was invited on whether the HEIP measure remained relevant and was still necessary to users. This included opportunity for comment on how users would be impacted if methodological changes were made to the series. 

The decision has been taken to retain a higher education participation statistical series, but subsequent headline measures will be developed from tracking cohorts of school pupils rather than relying on population estimates. This is therefore the last release which uses methodology based on population estimates. 

The change to cohort measures will: 

  • Be more accurate. The new method will measure participation by a clearly defined school cohort, rather than current population estimates that are subject to inward and outward migration flows.
  • Be more intuitive to users. Cohort tracking is easier to explain than the existing projection methodology.

Cohort measures also benefit from having a reliable estimate of the population across a wide range of personal characteristics and geographic breakdowns such as those published in Widening participation in higher education, 2019/20. This was discussed in “Supplementary analysis: Progression to higher education by age - a cohort measure” which was published last year.

As shown in the supplementary analysis (page 6), cohort measures can be used to estimate participation by age 30 based on ‘current’ participation levels. Projection estimates can be derived by considering the sum of changes in entry rates by age between the two latest academic years. This is similar to the measures published at present. 

DfE continues to welcome feedback on this change in methodology, and any other element of this release, at he.statistics@education.gov.uk.

Methodological changes over time

In December 2006, the National Audit Office published a review of the data systems underpinning target measurement in a number of Government Departments. The HEIP measure methodology was reviewed as part of this process. The report is available on the National Audit Office website, at:

Third Validation Compendium Report - National Audit Office (NAO) Report

The methodology for calculating the HEIP measure was revised in 2007, in line with recommendations set out in the National Statistics Quality Review and the recent National Audit Office review. The details of the revisions and their impact on the time series were reported in Statistical First Release 03/2007, “Methodological Revisions to the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR)”, which is available at:

[ARCHIVED CONTENT] Methodological Revisions to the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) - Data, research and statistics (nationalarchives.gov.uk)

The methodology for calculating the HEIPR was further revised in 2009 due to a change in the underlying data. Details of the revisions were reported in the Statistical First Release 03/2009, “Participation Rates in Higher Education: Academic Years 1999/00-2007/08 (Provisional)” which is available at:

[ARCHIVED CONTENT] DIUS: Participation Rates in Higher Education: Academic Years 1999/2000-2007/08 (Provisional) (nationalarchives.gov.uk)

Details of the impact of the revisions on the HEIPR time series were detailed in an appendix to the main Statistical publication which is available at:

[ARCHIVED CONTENT] DIUS: Participation Rates in Higher Education: Academic Years 1999/2000-2007/08 (Provisional) (nationalarchives.gov.uk)

In November 2020 the HEIP measure had been boosted by the inclusion of data from Alternative Providers (APs) of Higher Education.  The Higher Educations Statistics Agency (HESA) Student Alternative record was first collected in 2014/15. These data was first incorporated in the measure last year, and its impact on the series is shown in the headline table.

National Statistics reviews of participation measures

National Statistics reviews

In November 2002, the Department for Education and Skills commissioned a National Statistics Quality Review of Higher Education participation statistics. The review was carried out independently by Professor Ramsden in accordance with Office for National Statistics guidelines and was designed to ensure rigour and transparency. The report on the review was published in July 2003 and is available on the Office for National Statistics (ONS) website, at:

[ARCHIVED CONTENT] National Statistics Quality Review of the Initial Entry Rate into Higher Education - The Department for Education (nationalarchives.gov.uk)

The report recommended that the HEIP be a measure of initial participation in higher education. In August 2004, the Department for Education and Skills commissioned a further review to assess the feasibility of disaggregating the HEIP by ethnicity, disability, social class and region. This review was also carried out by Professor Ramsden. The report on this review was published in August 2005 and is available at:

[ARCHIVED CONTENT] Participation in Higher Education: A Study to Determine Whether the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate Should be Disaggregated : The Department for Education (nationalarchives.gov.uk)

In December 2010, the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) published an assessment of compliance with the Code of Practice for Official Statistics for Higher Education statistics in England and the UK. The Participation Rates in Higher Education Statistical First Release was covered as part of this assessment. The full assessment report is available on the UKSA website at:

Assessment Report 77 - Higher Education in England and the UK (statisticsauthority.gov.uk)