We got three new OfS dashboards in November, all relating to the sector as a whole, with no individual institution splits. Sigh of relief there then.
Nevertheless, these new student characteristics dashboards contain evidence to suggest why so many institutions may be struggling with a range of issues, such as degree awarding gaps – as well as providing much fun for data geeks like myself.
Make a dash for it
There’s the population dashboard, which shows trends from the last ten years in access to higher education. And there’s lots of new groups to explore – from free school meals eligibility to gender identity, religion or belief, sexual orientation, household income and the no doubt soon to be ubiquitous ABCs quintiles.
Then there’s the outcomes dashboard, which, with continuation, completion and progression (and, as a bonus, attainment) indicators, to my untrained eye looks suspiciously like the B3 regulation dashboard, although this time we can split by student group.
Again, loads of interesting stuff going on although, unfortunately, free school meals eligibility is as yet unavailable. Looking at the most recent data from my own institution, I can see FSM being a key student success as well as access target group of interest.
Cutting a dash
There’s plenty for data wonks to get their teeth stuck into. But the reason I felt compelled to write this blog was the third and final dashboard – entry qualification and subject data, or more specifically the entry qualification element of this fascinating duo.
No messing about with filters required to see the stark differences in outcomes between students entering higher education through the “traditional” A level route and those qualifying via the BTEC only route (typically a BTEC Extended Diploma equivalent to three A-Levels).
The default page focuses on continuation, where we find – as might be expected – the higher the grades, the higher the continuation rates. Or at least that’s the case when separating the different entry routes, as the dashboard handily does.
Are these routes really equivalent in terms of academic preparedness for the transition to higher education? One glance at the dashboard suggests not. Indeed, students with below DDD at A level (<72 tariff points) actually had higher rates of continuation than BTEC entrants with the very highest grade of D*D*D* (144 points).
And if we flick over to the other tabs, we find a similar pattern for attainment (2:1 or First class) and progression (to graduate level occupations or further study). This is despite the fact that the UCAS tariff treats the two routes the same.
Two pathways both alike in dignity
Having qualified for university entry via the BTEC route myself, I’m by no means criticising this qualification. Indeed, it offers an alternative route into higher education for those of us who had not negotiated the “traditional” pathway.
But we do need to at least acknowledge these stark differences – because underneath the overall average position, we might find courses, or specific modules within courses, for which such pathways are an unsuitable match to the demands of the undergraduate curriculum or its assessment practices.
If we dig deeper we find that specific groups of students are more likely to enter higher education through the BTEC route. For example, according to data from my institution, BTEC entrants are disproportionately black, disproportionately commuting to study, disproportionately eligible for free school meals, disproportionately male, disproportionately mature, disproportionately from deprived neighbourhoods and disproportionately eligible for a NTU means tested bursary.
It is perhaps no coincidence that these supplementary characteristics in their own right are also statistically associated with inferior outcomes. Although our performance in tackling gaps is ultimately judged from a homogenous perspective, we cannot ignore that multiple socioeconomic and demographic factors converge to influence student outcomes.
In a nutshell, when we talk of BTEC students, we are also talking of a host of other individual characteristics that influence their higher education experience. Understanding this intersectionality is crucial, because any interventions targeted at one specific group of students will automatically be targeted at other groups by proxy.
There is an inextricable link between the admissions and student success stages of the higher education student lifecycle. Our endeavours to diversify the student body by means of inclusive entry criteria inevitably influences continuation, completion, attainment and graduate outcomes.
Between 2017-18 and 2021-22, for example, the number of BTEC only entrants at our institution has increased by some 40 per cent and so, by definition, access of students from our other target groups has also increased. In effect, at the same time as we have been working to address degree awarding gaps, we have also significantly increased the scale of the challenge.
We know that many of the beneficiaries of widening access interventions, such as outreach and contextual admissions, will enrol at our institutions. Sector efforts to widen participation have a direct link to the success stage of the lifecycle.
We should not shy away from this dual challenge. A student from a deprived neighbourhood, formerly eligible for free school meals who came through the BTEC route and who goes on to achieve a 2:2, for example, may be an excellent outcome for that student.
But we should be mindful of the links between the diversity of the student body recruited and differential rates of success. Equality of opportunity differs from equality of student outcomes. The latter may be a desirable and well-meaning goal, but not a realistic one.
Beyond the tariff
Whilst there are equivalences in terms of tariff points for BTEC and A level qualification routes, there the similarity ends. Students with the lowest tariffs gained from A levels tend to do better than those with highest possible tariffs gained through BTECs. Tariffs are therefore a very poor indicator of academic preparedness if they are treated in this identical way for these very different entry routes.
Moreover, BTECs tend to be disproportionately studied by students with other characteristics known to be negatively associated with success. We should therefore not expect equal outcomes between the two routes, as they are clearly very different cohorts. However, we should identify risks to equality of opportunity, such as modules for which BTEC entrants are clearly inadequately prepared, and intervene accordingly.
With the future funding for BTECs in doubt as the sector moves towards T levels, we need to minimise any mismatch between Level 3 qualifications and any undergraduate curricular and assessment practices that hinder students’ opportunities to succeed.