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HESA and UUK release reports on student data and grade inflation

The HESA data show the level of qualifications that students are studying for, degree classification results, the geography and characteristics of students and the subjects they are studying. It has also provided an insight report into the possible impacts of the pandemic, and other factors, on the data.

The Universities UK report looks at grade inflation before and after the pandemic and the steps institutions are taking to maintain degree classification integrity, based on survey responses from 34 institutions. Alongside this, UUK has published degree outcomes statements from individual institutions in England and Wales which outline degree classification data and policies. The points below are marked “HESA” or “UUK” depending on their source.


  • First degree courses remained the most popular type of higher education, despite a decrease of 2 per cent between 2020/21 and 2021/22, driven by a drop in EU enrolments (HESA)
  • First year postgraduate taught numbers continued to rise with a 10 per cent increase compared to the previous year, driven by a 45 per cent rise in non-European Union international students. There was a 7 per cent decrease in UK students (HESA)
  • Postgraduate research courses reached the lowest number of first year student enrolments since 2012/13, with a decrease of 7 per cent compared to the previous academic year (HESA)
  • First class honours as a proportion of total qualifications in 2021/22 decreased by 4 percentage points to 32 per cent in 2021/22 (HESA). A 2:1 was awarded to 46 per cent of students in 2021/22, the same as the previous year and two percentage point lower than 2018/19. Meanwhile, third class honour awards increased by 2 percentage points for male students, and 1 percentage point for females (HESA)
  • More than 118 universities have published degree outcomes statements in England and Wales. These are short, public documents signed off by governing boards that scrutinise degree outcome levels, outline regulations and policies that protect degree standards and explain how results are arrived at. This follows a UUK and GuildHE  commitment in 2022  to return to pre-pandemic levels of higher awards (UUK)
  • The long term upward trajectory of top degree awards could be explained by better teaching, efforts by universities to close awarding gaps and, in the last few years, measures put in place to ensure students were not disadvantaged by pandemic disruption (UUK)
  • Governors have an important role to play in protecting degree standards. To support governors in this role, they should be involved earlier in the academic assurance process and all governors, through training, should feel empowered to interrogate processes robustly (UUK)
  • The number of students enrolled in UK-based distance learning programmes increased. It may be the case that following the shift to online learning at the start of the pandemic, more courses have been offered online and more young people have experience online learning, although distance learning growth is part of a longer-term trend which predates the pandemic (HESA)
  • The number of students abroad for a portion of the 2021/22 academic year was up 107 per cent on 2020/21, and the number abroad for the whole year was up 80 per cent. It may be that students were able to postpone their 2020/21 time abroad until the following academic year, when travel restrictions were being lifted. It is also possible that two years of restrictions on travel increased student interest in studying abroad (HESA)
  • Business and management was the most popular subject among students, with 19 per cent of all students enrolling in this subject, up from 17 per cent in 2020/21 and 16 per cent in 2019/20. Of the 55,490 overall increase in Business and management, 42,350 was attributed to non-EU postgraduate (taught) enrolments (HESA). Language and area studies is the only subject which had reduced enrolments in both 2020/21 and 2021/22 (HESA)
  • 27 per cent of all non-EU students were from China in 2021/22. The number of Chinese students has increased by 44,475, or 41 per cent, since 2017/18. Student enrolments from India also increased to 23 per cent of the total non-EU enrolments in 2021/22 (HESA)
  • The number of students studying wholly outside the UK who are either registered with a UK provider or studying for an award of a UK HE provider is over half a million (532,460). While this was an increase on the previous year, it is below the 2017/18 figure of 693,695 (HESA)

Implications for governance:

The HESA data covers a plethora of areas that will be of interest to governing bodies, including statistics on international students, distance learning, postgraduate numbers, subject popularity and qualifications obtained.

Governors may feel it useful to compare their institutional data to the trends covered in the HESA output, which goes back over five years. According to the HESA insight paper, direct pandemic effects were waning by 2021/22, with international student numbers, study abroad and campus-based student numbers all increasing.

Areas of potential concern might include UK-domicile postgraduate figures, which showed a 7 percent decrease in both taught and research postgraduate students. These changes are likely to reflect a mix of contextual factors, according to HESA. The fall in numbers, following a peak in 2020/21, may reflect signs of recovery in the job market as pandemic restrictions were being lifted, encouraging some graduates to go directly into the workforce rather than choose further study.

The overall increase in non-EU enrolments is driven primarily by taught postgraduate students. The introduction of the graduate route visa scheme is likely to have proved an inducement, and demonstrates the potential impact of government policy on higher education recruitment patterns.

Chinese recruitment continues to rise, raising questions of overdependence, and there has been a notable increase in Indian students of 106,200 over a five-year period. Enrolments from United Arab Emirates and Bangladesh, which were lower down the list in 2020/21, moved into the top ten in 2021/22. Governors may wish to consider these patterns with their own institutional data and where International Students are recruited from.

Both the HESA data and the UUK report show that the rise in the number of top class degree awards, that has been a focus of successive university ministers, is being brought back to pre-pandemic levels – although Firsts still account for nearly a third of all degrees awarded. There are implications for governors to consider when seeking academic assurance when examining awarding of degree classifications at both institutional and course based levels.

Likely factors include a move back to in-person exams at many institutions and/or in some subjects for the 2021/22 academic year. As a result, “some students may have struggled to achieve the marks which they might have achieved in an online examination with, for example, more time or the permission to use certain reference materials”.

Institutions have been under pressure not to “bake in” the high grades awarded during the first years of the pandemic. The Office for Students issued guidance to this effect in May 2022, and in July 2022 Universities UK announced a commitment by universities in England to return to pre-pandemic levels of firsts and 2.1s by 2023, as part of a UK-wide framework for strengthening internal processes relating to degree classification.

UUK has already published six principles for effective degree algorithm design that governors may want to consider. These include interrogating the combined impact of degree algorithms on institution’s result profiles; ending academic discretion at exam boards; minimising the use of discounting; greater consistency in how algorithms weight levels of study; stricter borderline policies; and giving students simple explanations of how algorithms work. In a UUK survey of 34 institutions, more than 90 per cent had or were reviewing their policies against these principles.

Other measures which can be taken by governing bodies include introducing nominated roles for governors to attend academic board meetings, and convening joint meetings between the governing body and academic board. Universities are also establishing academic sub-committees to their board focused on academic assurance. In seeking academic assurance, it is of increasing importance that all governors have the necessary support to develop or enhance their understanding of academic governance and student outcomes.

The UUK survey picked highlighted a risk that responsibility for quality assurance often falls on governors with a background in higher education (such as academic nominations). It points out that while drawing from governor expertise is right, it is also important that all governors can interrogate academic assurance processes robustly.

Advance HE, Universities UK and GuildHE are working together to deliver the ‘Academic Governance project’. The project is a collaboration that will bring the sector together to explore good practice in academic governance and to disseminate the findings.

The aim is to support or enhance governors’ understanding of their role in academic governance, dovetailing this with their corporate governance responsibilities. The project will lead to the updating of the framework for Academic Governance so that governing bodies can use it to assess their own effectiveness.

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