Reading the government’s statements around T-levels, the new vocational qualifications for 16-19 year olds introduced in 2020, it is easy to get the impression that they will straightforwardly benefit students, link them closely with productive industries and provide a “next level qualification” overall.
The old BTEC qualifications, by comparison, are presented by government as beset with problems and setting students up to fail. New research published this month by Oxford Brookes University, detailing the continuation and achievement gaps that affect students entering higher education holding only BTECs, may well bear out that view.
But it would be wishful thinking to imagine that replacing one vocational qualification with another will solve the issue of outcomes gaps at higher education level for students entering via the applied general route. And it would be short-sighted to imagine that we can avoid solving these problems by removing BTECs alone.
All about outcomes
The report “Educational Choices at 16-19 and University Outcomes” tells us some important information about BTEC-holding students’ likelihood of dropping out, needing to repeat their first year of study or graduating with a degree below a 2:1. The authors go on to recommend support programmes for these students aiming to address these differential academic outcomes.
The report’s findings are concerning. We see that an “average” student entering with only BTECs is roughly five percentage points more likely to drop out of university than their peers entering with only A-levels – almost a 50 percent rise in likelihood. We also see that students entering HE with only BTECs are 1.7 times more likely to repeat a year of study than those entering with only A-levels, and 1.4 times more likely to graduate with a degree below a 2:1.
One particularly interesting point in the report is the only exception to the general rule that while having A-levels in related subjects to a student’s degree course will be beneficial to the student’s degree outcomes, having relevant BTECs will not be. For students studying Performing Arts, a related BTEC qualification in Drama does have evidence of leading to better degree outcomes including being more likely to graduate with a 2:1 or above. As a practically-based course, it is easy to imagine how a heavily practical BTEC could be particularly helpful when studying, for example, Acting.
Yet despite a handful of interesting exceptions, the general picture painted by this report of how BTEC students fare in higher education is quite bleak.
T-levels are coming
Some commentators might ask whether this matters when T-levels are so likely to replace BTECs. It would be easy to argue that the solution to these problems is to simply discontinue BTECs – BTEC students can’t have issues in higher education if the qualifications do not exist. Though the Oxford Brookes report raises some searching questions about how our higher education system serves undergraduate students with non-academic prior qualifications, these questions merit attention, not erasure.
As part of AccessHE and London Higher’s work to support the Protect Student Choice campaign, we have been looking at the issues affecting this student group, none of which will be solved by replacing BTECs with T-levels.
The first, and most important, issue to recognise is that even if BTEC qualifications vanish, the students themselves will not. The students of future years who would have taken BTECs in the current system will still exist and, more to the point, a very large number of them will continue to aspire to university.
London is a case in point here: demographic and higher education progression trends suggest that demand for higher education in this decade will be driven primarily by students from BAME backgrounds in London, who are similarly the most likely groups to be taking BTECs. Between 2011-2020, the numbers of 18-year-old students accepted onto places at London higher education providers with BTECs grew by 64 percent whereas the equivalent growth for students holding A-Levels only for the period was 7 percent.
We must not fall into the trap of believing that the issues awaiting this (large) group of students in higher education as BTEC learners would not await them as T-Level learners too.
Secondly, BTEC students will continue to exist in the form of mature students. Those who leave school or college with BTECs this year, or who already hold BTECs, could choose to enter university later in life. The Oxford Brookes report contains findings in its appendices about the particular experiences of BTEC-holding mature students – most worryingly, it finds even larger gaps in dropout rates between mature BTEC students and their counterparts holding A-Levels than for young BTEC and A-Level students.
These statistics tell us that whatever the outcome of the national conversation about replacing BTECs with T-levels, we will have to find solutions to these problems. Large numbers of students holding qualifications other than A-levels will continue to apply to university and the higher education sector must continue to support them as best we can. We cannot let the name of the qualifications students hold distract from the most important matter – which is always the students themselves.