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How successful are BTEC students at university?

Students with BTEC qualifications are more likely to fail to progress within undergraduate study. Pallavi Amitava Banerjee from the University of Exeter has the data.
This article is more than 6 years old

Pallavi Amitava Banerjee is a Senior Lecturer in education at the University of Exeter.

A growing number of students with vocational qualifications, such as the BTEC, are now taking up undergraduate courses. In 2016, one in four students entering HE held a BTEC qualification, double the 2008 figure.

HEFCE research has shown that the biggest factor driving variations in student outcomes nationally is the entry qualification of students. For example, BTEC students have a smaller proportion of “good” degrees than all students with A-levels – even BTEC students with three distinctions get a smaller proportion than A-level students with three Cs.

A descriptive statistical analysis of institutional admissions and progression data – carried out as part of the HEFCE funded project ‘Transforming Transitions‘ – shows that the highest proportion of students who did not progress to the second year of their undergraduate course has entered with a BTEC qualification. This reiterates the questions raised earlier concerning whether the BTEC route is working for progression to higher education.

Here, I have grouped students by prior qualifications  – depending on whether they entered university with A-levels, International Baccalaureate (IB), BTEC, diplomas, certificate courses or a combination of these. The patterns of entry and progression of BTEC students during the first year of their undergraduate courses in three subject areas – business studies, computer science and sports – are compared, drawing on institutional data for the last four years.

Patterns of entry

Our analysis shows the highest proportion of students entered project partner HEIs with an A-level or IB qualification. Students with a BTEC qualification make up only 10.5% of the population (N=5183), with BTEC only qualification more prevalent than a BTEC plus A level or IB qualifications.

Admissions data drawn from three higher education providers for the last four years shows one of the Russell group (RG) universities had the highest proportion of BTEC entrants, followed by a non-Russell group university. Geographical location of HEIs and social networks appears to play a more crucial role in BTEC students’ choice of university.

Patterns of progression

Analysis of progression data showed the highest proportion of students who failed their end of first year examination had BTEC qualifications (24%), and students whose prior qualifications had a combination of A levels and BTECs did relatively better.

Amongst all first degree entrants Sports and Exercise Science courses had the highest percentage of BTEC entrants. The figure below shows the percentage of BTEC students who entered partner Universities to study these courses, and the percentages of BTEC students who passed or failed the first year of study.

Subject-wise patterns for BTEC entrants

So BTEC students are more likely to enter partner HEIs to study first degrees in Sport and Exercise science – where they are also more likely to pass the end of first year examination. Their next preferred option to study amongst these three subjects is Business and Management, and they are least likely to study Computer Science. Again the percentage of those who failed to progress to the second year of study in Business and Computer Science was higher than that of Sports and Exercise Science.

Next steps

Overall patterns of progression show more BTEC students fail the end of first year examination as compared to entrants with other qualifications. One possible explanation for this is that they are at a different starting point in terms of academic preparedness and understanding assessment expectations in HE. Interventions may therefore need to target support around learning and progression of BTEC students during first year in HE or even earlier to encourage transferable learning.

Subject-wise patterns of progressions for BTEC students show they are less successful in Computer Science and Business Studies as compared to Sports. Interventions and academic support in HE need to be tailored across subject-areas in line with course structure and programme requirements to help BTEC students achieve better educational outcomes.

It might be the case that not just inclusive pedagogies across universities, but a collaborative approach between higher education providers and FE colleges, can support the progression of these students better. This is all the more important as BTEC qualifications are acknowledged as contributing to widening HE access.

6 responses to “How successful are BTEC students at university?

  1. Instead of concentrating only on the ‘deficiencies’ of BTEC students, should some thought be given to teaching and assessment methods (for the whole cohort) that would make the transition to HE less steep for BTEC students and which would equally engage and develop the study skills of A level students. We may be built curricula on the implicit assumption that students have studied A levels, but are we really saying that A levels are the ideal preparation for HE?

  2. My experience of students with BTECs as UGs was that although some were very bright, many just produced lovely coursework with diagrams cut & paste from the web, cited correctly, but they did not all understand what it was about. They were often poor at self-learning. My impression was that they were coached well in doing the work required to pass BTEC, but it was mostly coursework. As for transferable skills, compiling pages of text and diagrams for magazines or reports would be high on the list. Ask why did they do a BTEC rather than A-levels? Some, notably the really good students, became pregnant when they should have done A-levels, and were catching up. Others, I suspect, were not ‘academic’ enough to be accepted at school, and took BTEC as a more accessible ‘practical’ route. They were better at diligence and repetition than reasoning, doers rather than thinkers, and the BTEC did not change that, nor would I expect it to. It seems obvious to me that most educationally successful students will follow the direct route via A-levels (or IB) to university; any other route suggests educational problems (e.g. lack of attainment) which may not go away.

    1. Catergorising students as instrincally ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ is too simplistic and disregards inequality of outcome.

      Students may study BTEC because of poor GCSE scores, but educational attainment can be influenced by a number of factors. The most well known influence is the income of your family. GCSE students who come from middle or high income families can benefit from the help of parents and tutors. It has also been found that the language used in examinations and schools is biased towards the middle class.

      Furthermore, undiagnosed disabilites such as ADHD, dyslexia or Asperger’s could mean that a student does not get the support they need to reach their potential. Untreated mental illness could also significantly impact a person’s ability to learn by affecting their motivation and concentration.

      Adding on, issues like abuse, sexual harassment and bullying can affect the mental health of students and create environments in school or at home that are not conducive to learning. For example, it would be incredibly difficult to concentrate when trying to revise if your parents are constantly arguing.

  3. Lovely bit of vagueness there. Any examples?

    And yes, A-levels are closer to what you’ll be getting at university level than BTECs. So it makes sense that BTECs should be the ones picking up the slack. Unless you’d like to turn our greatest institutions into technical colleges offering vocational, CW-assessed degrees.

  4. THe comments suggest that problems have been highlighted, students accepted but nothing set in place as intervention.
    Many BTEC students, including boys, who research shows tend not to perform well on course work based assignments, end up producing work to DIstinction level when completing Business modules, especially when they can become actively engaged, setting up a business. Sports Science often contains its own motivational modules too.
    The area of essay writing has to be enhanced by teachers/lecturers being able to understand and teach strategies to develop more complex and relevant vocabulary, especially important for esol students.
    Since school and college teachers/lecturers as well as university lecturers themselves are unawaremof how this works, it is not surprising their bright students do not achieve the expected grades.
    How do I know? I have spent the last 5 years doing such teaching at all key stages, including those aspiring to university and many learners ask me why they were never taught such strategies before? In training, it was teachers and lecturers who found it most difficult to understand and then apply what they had learnt.

    Get back if you want to know more.

  5. I have seen that there are students who are using online services from and these services are being the reasons of their success. If you will ask any BTEC student to answer any question related to their study, they will be helpless in answering those. These companies have grown significantly and I saw other companies offering the same. There is a huge list, trust me!

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