Second HESA Release Confirms Alternative Providers Vital Role in Widening Participation

The second HESA Alternative Provider data release, ‘Higher education undergraduate student enrolments and qualifications obtained at alternative providers in England 2015/16’ can be viewed here

Today the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) released its second Alternative Provider (AP) data release, expanding the number of providers included to 97. The data is still classed as experimental, with the addition of 37 providers completing the return for the first time. Last year’s data included 63 of the largest providers in the sector, with a few institutions contributing the bulk of the student data. This year’s group is more diverse in both subject area and student demographic, and includes for the first time School-centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) Networks.

The data shows for a second year that students studying at Alternative Providers are more likely to be from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds than those at traditional universities, with 56% in the 2015/16 cohort identifying as BME (up from 43% last year). This compares to only 24% in publicly funded HE providers.

Students at Alternative Providers are also more likely to be mature, with 39% of full-time students aged 30 or over at the point of entry, compared to only 6% at publicly funded providers. This represents a slight change from last year when 43% of full-time students at APs were over 30 at the point of entry. It is likely that the addition of more small, specialist institutions and the SCITTS have had a particular impact on the data in this area.

With the 2015/16 data including a broader and more representative sample of the Alternative Provider sector, the data shows a majority of students (60%) undertaking first degree courses, 54% of whom were in their first year.

HND/HNC courses, however, remain an important part of the AP offer with 30% of the students following these courses which support entry to higher education for students without the qualifications required by traditional universities. This reflects the more flexible model of delivery found in APs and underlines their crucial role in widening participation.

The inclusion of additional providers has also led to a shift in subject areas represented in the student population. Students studying Business Studies programmes remained dominant (48%), but there were rises in areas such as Creative arts & design, (20%) and Science subject areas (10%). With APs often leading the field in interdisciplinary courses, more work is needed in this area to understand how courses which cross over two or more subject codes are represented in the data.

13,820 students received qualifications from APs in 2015/16, including 45% at first degree level. As this is only the second AP data release from HESA, and includes many new entrants, it is not possible to view these figures in the broader context of students enrolled across several cohorts.

It is notable that even with a far broader and more representative range of providers included this year than in 2014/15, the data continues to tell a compelling story of the role that APs play in delivering social mobility solutions for under-represented groups.

The addition of specialist institutions and School-centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) Networks has brought greater depth and reliability to the data as a tool for insight into this important sector. We look forward to further data that will help to improve understanding of the interplay of key issues such as student retention, demographics and mode of study at Alternative Providers.

Independent Higher Education Chief Executive Alex Proudfoot said:

“This second year of HESA AP data confirms the important role that independent providers play in widening participation. Our members offer many advantages to students, such as lower fees, higher contact hours, smaller class sizes, flexible entry and start dates which fit around a student’s circumstances, making them a popular choice for the demographic of student that universities struggle to attract.

“The data shows that independent providers play a vital role in supporting students into degree-level study, particularly those returning to study and who benefit from more flexible entry. The new framework established by the Higher Education and Research Bill will be essential to ensuring that they remain this positive force for social mobility in the years to come.

“Supporting such diverse groups of students gives independent higher education institutions a unique perspective on regulation. We look forward to working with HESA, HEFCE and the other sector bodies to ensure that this perspective is properly represented through the transformative changes to come.”


  1. About Independent Higher Education
    Independent Higher Education is the UK membership organisation and national representative body for independent providers of higher education, professional training and pathways.
  2. The HESA Report “Higher education undergraduate student enrolments and qualifications obtained at alternative providers in England 2015/16” can be found here –
  3. The 2015/16 Alternative Provider (AP) record includes 97 of the 115 APs offering designated undergraduate and designated postgraduate ITT courses in England. Provision of HE by APs in England is much wider than this. The BIS report ‘Understanding the Market of Alternative Higher Education Providers and their Students in 2014‘suggests that there were 732 APs offering course provision in the UK in spring 2014.
  4. For further information or interviews, please contact Joy Elliott-Bowman, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at Independent Higher Education, on 020 7608 8453 or at
  • On 8th February 2017