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.
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.