Defunding BTECs could set the widening access agenda back by decades

Graeme Atherton argues that the sector would be wise to lobby the government to keep BTECs as a route to higher education, or risk winding the clock back on decades of progress on widening access.

Graeme Atherton is the director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), based within London Higher.

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The government’s attempt to reshape post-18 education with an increased focus on further education at universities’ expense has captured the higher education sector’s attention. However, the simultaneous shift to a binary system of level 3 qualifications with the introduction of T-levels and the defunding of the vast majority of Applied General Qualifications (AGQ), including BTECs may have even more impact and could set progress in widening access to higher education back by decades.

In its review of post 16 qualifications at level 3 consultation document released late last year, the government proposes that from 2024 only a small number of specialist courses will be funded – for example in health/social care and the performing arts. The defunding of the vast majority of AGQs has caused much concern, including from Ofqual, which highlighted the number of learners entering HE either solely with BTECs/A level BTECs. And the impact of removing the BTEC option will be felt particularly acutely by black students and those from low participation areas.

The latest report from the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) released today Will abolishing BTECs mean reversing widening access to higher education? examines the potential impact on participation in HE of younger students from low participation areas and different ethnic backgrounds. Looking at UCAS data on the participation of 18-year-olds in HE in 2020 shows that 26% of those entering from POLAR quintile 1 (the lowest HE participation areas) held a BTEC qualification. This compares to less than 10% of those from POLAR quintile 5 (the highest participation areas).

The table below shows that since 2011 the percentage of students entering higher education from POLAR quintile 1 has remained relatively steady at between 25% and 30%.

18-year-old students from POLAR 1 quintile entering HE via BTEC or A level/BTEC

YearNo. of students entering HE from POLAR 1 quintileNo. of BTEC or A-level/BTEC students% of BTEC or A-level/BTEC students
201121540614528
201220230491524
201320845549526
201423225683029
201524730743030
201624980744529
201725800754529
201825310680027
201926445666026
202028885740026

The table also shows the gradual nature of progress in increasing POLAR 1 participation, and how sensitive this progress could be to reducing the numbers entering with BTECs or A levels/BTECs.

It is striking that the proportion of black students entering HE with BTECs alone is nearly twice that of white students. And a third of all black 18-year-old students enter HE with either BTECs/A level BTECs compared to 21% of white students.

To gauge how the proposed qualification reforms will impact widening access, we surveyed NEON members in late 2020. We have been undertaking these kinds of surveys for nearly ten years, but few, if any, have provoked such lengthy and impassioned responses as this. Over 90% of respondents felt the impact on widening access of defunding BTECs would be negative. It would be “devastating”, it is “not realistic” to expect all students can enter higher education with A levels and many students from widening access backgrounds risk being “categorised” as T-level students from an early age. And in some areas, A levels are not widely available to all students and that BTECs may represent a better preparation for HE in some vocationally oriented courses.

None of the respondents were confident that T-levels would provide a route to higher education, either alone or with A levels, to fill the gap left by BTECs. They are right to be sceptical. It is clear from what the government has said or done so far that T-levels are being designed to explicitly facilitate progression to employment.

Widening access to higher education will inevitably suffer from 2024. It is hard to say how much, but Table 1 shows that if even only half of the learners taking A levels or A level/BTECs were lost to HE then this would, relative to 2020 levels, set POLAR quintile 1 participation back to 2015/2016 levels – a reversal of five years progress.

If all such learners were lost then participation would go back to 2011 levels – a decade’s progress lost.

Although the consultation is over, the higher education sector should continue to lobby the government to reconsider its decision to defund the majority of BTEC courses and at the same time address the potential of T-levels as a route to university. The price of not doing so will not only be thousands of learners with the potential to enter HE being denied the opportunity to do so, but another stick for the government to beat the sector with as progress in widening access at best stalls, or almost certainly goes into reverse.

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