BTEC’s back alright

It has been widely reported that there has been a significant rise in the number of students taking up Business and Technology Education Council level 3 extended diplomas over traditional A levels.

What is often lost in this discourse is that the majority of students studying BTEC and other vocational and technical courses, are from low-income backgrounds or whose ethnicity or social group are under-represented both in HE and in the graduate employment market.

The evidence for this is growing. A report produced by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) in January found that “almost half (48%) of black students are accepted [into a university course] with at least one vocational qualification, and more than a third (37%) enter with only vocational qualifications”, and that students whose parents work in routine or manual occupations are “twice as likely to enter [university] having studied at least one vocational qualification”.

Furthermore, the 2017 report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), Reforming BTECs: Applied general qualifications as a route to higher education, shows that in 2015, 66% of students completing their BTEC were on Free School Meals (FSM). The evidence tells us that overwhelmingly students from low-income backgrounds and whose ethnicity is under-represented at university are more likely to study applied and technical courses at FE colleges. This begs the question of university equity departments: if you’re not serious about BTEC, are you really serious about widening participation?

Ensuring student success

At Birkbeck, University of London, the answer is emphatically yes. But we also recognise the challenges and responsibilities of guiding people who have primarily trained for technical and applied qualifications to succeed with university courses that demand analytical and theoretical modes of study.

A recent conference organised and hosted by Brunel University’s Academic Skills Service (ASK) highlighted the importance of supporting BTEC students both pre-entry and once they have begun their course. The conference raised pertinent questions around the need to not simply recruit BTEC students as part of a widening participation agenda, but the moral responsibility of supporting those students to succeed.

Similarly, writing in response to April’s release by the Office for Students (OfS) of Differences in student outcomes: The effect of student characteristics, Mike Ratcliffe of Nottingham Trent University (NTU) noted that the largest factor in the attainment gap is students’ entry qualifications, and goes on to highlight the actions that NTU has taken to address this. Both raise the primary concern of using the BTEC as an HE entry qualification: it does not prepare students for university study in the same way that A levels or similar do. However, that is not an argument for dismissing those who study the BTEC as potential HE applicants.

Working in partnership

At Birkbeck we understand that in order to stay true to our founding mission as a fair access university, we must continue to look beyond A levels in order to work effectively with non-traditional students.

What is clear to us is that partnerships between HE and FE institutions offer vital springboards for non-traditional students into university. The collaborative nature of these links provides key progression opportunities for BTEC and other FE college students to connect with HE. Progression agreements with FE colleges and the world of the Lifelong Learning Networks (LLNs) might seem like things of the dim and distant past, but with the increased relevance of the BTEC as a route to university, these agreements are again proving extremely valuable.

In June it was announced that Middlesex University London and London’s Capital City College Group (CCCG) had entered into a partnership to provide what they termed “seamless learning pathways for people of all abilities, ages, and needs.” A progression agreement can enables admissions tutors to understand fully the learning situation of the applicant. It’s also a chance for the university widening participation team to provide tailored support for college students, in line with the courses they are studying, the programmes they are interested in applying to, and the further training and support they may need once at university.

The progression agreements that Birkbeck is looking to develop with our partner colleges don’t just deliver students to the point of enrolling, they also help us track and support students once they have begun their studies. This is a key part of our long-term strategy of welcoming increased numbers of FE college students.

Adapting to change

Birkbeck’s partnership with Linking London helps us to keep abreast with the pace of change in the FE sector. Andrew Jones, Linking London’s director, runs regular workshops bringing together practitioners from HE and FE to learn from one another, enabling Birkbeck to adjust and adapt to the ways in which we work with our partner colleges.

So where does this leave us? University widening participation must look to FE colleges and the Level 3 qualifications studied there in order to progress social mobility through education. The changes to the BTEC national diploma to develop it as an entry qualification for employment and HE means that students are choosing it in good faith as a valid qualification with which to apply to university.

And yet, despite more universities being open to accepting students with BTEC, many more still prioritise the A level. Indeed, research undertaken by the SMF found that several universities in the top 20 of the Good University Guide fail to mention vocational or technical education within their access agreements.

At Birkbeck we know that the BTEC is not perfect as an entry qualification. However, in the fluctuating educational landscape it is the responsibility of universities to continue to differentiate the way we teach and support our students.

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