Will T-levels follow the important role of BTECs in widening HE access?

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With the new developments around the creation of a binary educational track of T-levels versus A-levels, there’s a risk that BTECs – which often don’t get a fair hearing – will be squeezed out of the usual pathways into university and higher learning.

Already overlooked and seen as lesser to the almighty A-level, now is the right time to make the case for BTEC’s role in widening participation.

Where we are now

After several years of growth, there has been emerging evidence that BTECs role in enabling higher education access may be in decline. Entries for GCSE-level BTEC qualifications fell by 43% in 2016. 

A recent report by HEPI demonstrates the positive role that BTECs have played in widening participation in recent years. 66% of pupils on free school meals go on to study BTECs, and 18.5% of students with the lowest rate of university participation had undertaken BTECs, as compared to 11.5% of university entrants overall. Moreover, BTECs are a valuable route for mature students. According to OFFA, close to 43% of learners attaining a degree through the BTEC route are aged 27 or above.

There is also an interesting gendered dynamic to BTECs, particularly given growing concern around white working-class boys entering higher education. More men study BTECs than A-levels, and of these men, the majority are white. Men undertaking degrees through the BTEC route are actually more likely to obtain a first class Honours degree than those entering with A-levels.

Despite the role that BTECs can play as an alternative pathway into higher education, there are serious question marks over the success of BTEC holders once they get there. BTEC holders have higher non-retention rates than A-level holders. Non-completion rates are higher for students from lower socio-economic groups, but even within this group, BTEC holders fare the worst. The institutions with the lowest completion rates for BTEC holders are Russell Group universities, which also have the lowest levels of acceptances, with only 2% of BTEC entrants going to Russell Group universities.

HEPI’s recent report rightly argues that further growth in BTEC holders entering higher education could play a significant role in further widening participation. The author, Scott Kelly, argues against the ‘academisation’ of BTECs as a form of applied A-levels. He also recommends that more prestigious and higher tariff universities currently with low numbers of BTEC entrants should consider bespoke access courses aimed at helping them adjust to higher education, in order to improve retention.

However, given the scale of the issues of admission, retention, and completion, perhaps there needs to be a larger rethink of BTECs role into higher education. 

Challenges ahead

With the government’s introduction of T-levels as the vocational counterpart to A-levels, the new binary choice might risk leaving BTECs in limbo. If BTECs are not to be academised in line with A-levels, putting them in the T-level camp might move them away from widening participation into university. Indeed, this was the conclusion of the Sainsbury Review last year, which determined that BTECs should be considered an academic and not a technical pathway. Nonetheless, the possibility for duplication between T-level pathways and BTECs should raise an eyebrow or two. Of the fifteen T-level pathways outlined, only three aren’t already covered by a BTEC qualification: finance and accounting, protective services, and marketing and procurement. 

If schools, colleges, and students are pressurised by the government to ensure strong take-up of either T-levels or A-levels for all students, BTECs could be the ‘squeezed middle’ qualification. There is already some evidence that DfE does not view BTECs as favourably as others. Whereas UCAS consider a distinction in a BTEC to be the same tariff points to a grade A at A-Level, DfE only considers it to be midway between grade B and grade C.

The scope for confusion for parents and students is high, despite T-levels being designed to make non-A level pathways less of a labyrinth. A sizeable number of universities have a significant stake in the outcome of all this, as do the sector’s overall widening participation figures.

As it happens, the sector’s interest in this is further complicated by the position of Michael Barber, incoming Chair of the Office for Students. Barber’s most recent role has been as Chief Education Advisor at Pearson, who own and administer BTECs.

What for now?

T-levels are still a way off; full implementation will only come in September 2022. In the short to medium term, that universities particularly reliant on BTEC entrants have been the ones to suffer most from declining school-leaver recruitment should raise alarm bells were take-up at Level 2 and 3 to further decline. 

OFFA should also take note of the challenges that BTEC student face once they arrive at university, including the markedly lower retention and completion rates, coupled with a tendency for students to be from less privileged backgrounds. BTEC holders are a cohort that should be given specific attention by access and retention efforts, and universities should monitor, track, and invest in the progression of students who might be unused to some of the assessment methods and styles of delivery for in higher education.

This does not mean that the BTEC is insufficient preparation for university, nor prove correct those who do see it as an inferior qualification. Plenty of evidence shows that BTEC students are able to succeed at university, and the number of students undertaking BTECs in conjunction with A-levels further underlines how this is no simple matter.

And after all, why should the question simply be about shaping the student to fit the university mould? BTECs are progressive in their assessment methods, with coursework a fundamental component. As the number of students taking BTECs increases, albeit still a small proportion of students overall, this is the time to think about assessment methods to fit the student, not the academic. Greater demands should be put onto academia – especially the Russell Group – to further develop ways to support and assess students beyond archaic end-of-year finals.

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