Linked data on student debt open up new research opportunities

News, Data release
20 October 2021

Researchers tracking the experiences of the millennial generation can now explore a wider range of questions related to the financial costs and benefits of attending university, thanks to newly linked admin and survey data.

Coordinated by the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), this linkage of student loans records to Next Steps survey data will allow researchers to more accurately study how millennials in England draw on higher education loans, providing insight into the average levels of borrowing by university type, ethnicity, attainment level, socioeconomic background and region, among many other characteristics.

In addition, these data may offer some insight into issues related to higher education access and participation, such as how fear of debt may deter some young people from attending university.

Next Steps is a longitudinal cohort study which follows around 16,000 people in England born in 1989-90, collecting information about different aspects of their lives. The study began when the cohort members were 14 years old, with sweeps every year up until age 20, and then again at age 25. The age 32 survey is set to get underway this year.

The CLS data team worked with the Student Loans Company (SLC) to securely link the student loans data to cohort members’ survey data. The linked student loans data includes information on payments and repayments up to the end of April 2020 for more than 2,400 undergraduates, as well as data related to institution and course, academic year, country of study, home region and household income.

Dr Morag Henderson, director of Next Steps, said: “These student loans data have been linked to Next Steps survey data for the first time, allowing researchers to look at students’ loan repayments in the context of their employment status and income over a number of years.

“These newly linked data will help to improve our understanding of the costs and ensuing advantages of studying at university and may also help researchers understand the wider implications of student loan debt; how it relates to people’s current and later finances, and their chances of getting onto the property ladder.

“This information will further enrich studies on higher education and employment, informing policy and practice, as well as providing guidance to current and future generations of graduates.”

During the Next Steps Age 25 survey, CLS obtained consent from cohort members to link their survey records to administrative data sources covering education, health, economics, and criminal justice. Some of these linked data are now available, including linked NHS administrative data and linked educational records.

This latest development is part of a programme of data linkage work underway at CLS, home to three other cohort studies as well as Next Steps: the 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS), the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70), and the Millennium Cohort Study.

Cohort members’ survey data and the newly linked student loans datasets are de-identified and can be accessed by registered researchers under a secure access licence through the UK Data Service website.

How to access the data

The datasets are available via the UK Data Service’s secure access system, the Secure Lab. Information about how users can apply for access to these data can be found on the UK Data Service website.

The datasets are included in the UK Data Service catalogue as Next Steps: Linked Administrative Datasets (Student Loans Company Records), 2007 – 2021: Secure Access (SN8848)

Find out more

More information on the linked data datasets is available in the user guide, available from the CLS website and the UK Data Service website.

More information on the fieldwork and consent collection can be found in the Next Steps Age 25 technical report and Next Steps Age 25 User Guide. All documents can be found under ‘documentation’ at


  1. CLS securely transferred personal details (such as the cohort member’s name, sex, date of birth and address) when working with the SLC to link student loans records to survey data. No other information about the person, or any of their answers to the surveys, was sent. The SLC only used these details to identify the person in their systems and to send CLS their student loans records. Once the correct information was identified, these personal details were destroyed. When the data from the student loans records was sent to CLS, it was added to the information collected in the study. All survey and linked data are made available to researchers under restricted access arrangements. Names, addresses, National Insurance and/or NHS numbers, are never disclosed.
  2. Highly confidential datasets managed by the UKDS are classified as controlled data, which are not available under standard UKDS access arrangements. Users applying for controlled data have additional conditions of access, including the completion of special forms and attending a training course. Once approval is granted, datasets are available to view on the UKDS’s secure system, the Secure Lab. Data accessed in this way cannot be downloaded. Once researchers and their projects are approved, they can analyse the data remotely from their organisational desktop, or by using the UKDS’s Safe Room. They provide access to statistical and office software to make remote analysis and collaboration secure and convenient.

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