Press Notice: HEFCE’s Damaging Blunder

Funder and Regulator reverses key degree results

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has made a crucial error in its latest report on degree outcomes (2015/21).
It said that 82 per cent of graduates getting firsts or upper-seconds in 2013-14 came from state schools compared with 73 per cent from independent schools.

An analysis of HEFCE’s data published today (Tuesday) by Professor Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham, has found that these figures are the wrong way round. In fact, it was 82 per cent of graduates from independent schools that had been awarded good degrees.

The wrong figures were widely quoted in the media in September 2015 when the HEFCE report was released, under headlines such as; ‘Top degree? You probably went to a state school’.

The report was quietly altered after we had privately drawn the error to HEFCE’s attention, but they still have not issued a public correction.

Professor Smithers said: “It is extraordinary that an influential body like HEFCE should have got its figures wrong and failed to publicly rectify them after being alerted to the error. So long as these figures are out there uncorrected, they will continue to influence both perceptions of schools and how universities are expected to go about recruiting students.

“I call on HEFCE to set the record straight so that everyone understands the true picture.”

Although HEFCE has changed the figures in the report, confusingly, it still repeats that state school pupils are four percentage points ahead rather than nine points behind.

A likely explanation for this contradiction is that HEFCE is calculating what state school students would have achieved had they the same entry qualifications as independent school students. But they did not.

Three times as many of the students from independent school pupils achieved three or more A grades at A-level. Less than half the state school entrants achieved at least three grade Cs.

Professor Smithers said: “While statistical alchemy may be able to turn a nine-point deficit into a four-point advantage, ultimately university admissions tutors have to deal with real people not statistical constructs.”

HEFCE has provided, for the first time, in its 2015/21 Paper degree performance for the whole range of entry qualifications. This enables the claim that state school pupils do better at university by entry qualification to be set in context.

At the heart of the confusion over the relative degree performance of students from state and independent schools is what entry qualifications are included and how many have achieved at these levels.

For three A-levels at grade C and above, 85 per cent of both state and independent schools students were awarded good degrees.

Below three A grades, but with at least three ‘C’s, state school students were ahead by 83 to 80 per cent, or 2,200 students out of the total entry from state schools of 197,350.

But when all entry qualifications and the proportions achieving them are taken into account, the students from independent schools were nine percentage points ahead.


  1. Higher Education Funding Council for England (2015). Differences in Degree Outcomes: the effect of subject and student characteristics. Issues Paper 2015/21. Bristol: HEFCE.
  2. Coverage on 15 September 2015 was under headlines such as: ‘State students outperform private in degree grades’ (BBC News Online); ‘State students outperform private students at university’ (The Times); ‘State school students do better at university’ (The Daily Mail); and ‘Top degree? You probably went to a state school’ (The Independent).
  3. HEFCE’s Blunder is available at:
  4. CEER first noticed that HEFCE’s Table H1 did not look right when it was going through the 2015/21 paper as part of its project on social disadvantage. It queried the figures with HEFCE which confirmed in an email dated 8 October 2015 that a transposition had occurred. CEER drew this to the attention of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) which asked us to prepare a brief explanatory note for its members. Having read it, HMC asked us to put it into the public domain. The report on social disadvantage will be published shortly.

Professor Alan Smithers, Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham, 01280 820270 (direct line) 07974 765864 (mobile)