University Alliance has long argued that a sharp dichotomy between vocational and academic education is false. In fact, over 40% of university degrees are vocational (defined as “designed to offer a pathway to a specific career or profession by developing specific, technical skills used in that profession”). The proportion is even higher in many modern universities.
It is, therefore, not surprising that many universities accept a large number of students with Applied General Qualifications – of which the BTEC is the most common and well-known. BTEC qualifications, which combine knowledge and understanding with application in real-world, occupational settings, can provide a strong foundation for success in higher education and the workplace. Around a third of students at Alliance universities enter with at least one BTEC. These students are often among the best prepared at problem-solving and working in teams.
Universities must ensure students can succeed regardless of the qualifications they come with, and where university experience is still predominantly designed for students arriving with A-Levels, may need to change practices and processes to ensure BTEC students can succeed.
The right support
There are many positive examples of universities adopting a proactive approach: Nottingham Trent University’s Student Dashboard learning analytics software enables students to take control of their studies, with personalised student support. The University of Brighton has adopted new ways of assessing students using a range of different models: formal written examinations are not always the best way of assessing competence, particularly in subjects like nursing. Many universities have developed successful first-year study programmes to help students adjust to assessment methods which they may find unfamiliar.
This is particularly important in the context of social mobility. BTECs have provided a vital progression route, particularly over the last decade, for students with characteristics associated with educational disadvantage: those from low-participation neighbourhoods and regions, from an ethnic minority background, white working class boys and those whose parents worked in routine or manual occupations.
As the SMF argues, examples of best practice need to be adopted more widely and with greater coordination. The new Director of Fair Access and Participation, Chris Millward, has indicated he is particularly interested in seeing that they do so. More widely, if the Office for Students is successfully to carry out the role envisaged for it by the Industrial Strategy, as a ‘strategic mind’ focused on the future skills needs of the UK economy, fostering greater join-up and collaboration between different parts of the education system will need to be within its purview. The future of the UK economy demands a blend of technical, academic and sector-specific skills, and the qualifications landscape must continue to reflect this.
Fitting into a new framework
It is not yet clear whether the Government intends its new T-Levels to replace BTECs as the qualification of choice for students who want an alternative to A-Levels – nor, given the success of BTECs in promoting social mobility, whether this would be the right policy. It is, however, essential that T-Levels also provide a strong progression route to university. This will require action from both government and universities.
Ministers are keen that employers should drive the content of T-Levels as they are primarily intended as good preparation for students who want to go straight to work. This makes sense – but where employers identify content that would not be sufficient preparation for university, students must be told that this is the case and given the option of additional study.
For example, employers expecting to recruit from the engineering pathway may feel that Level 2 mathematics is sufficient for an entry-level job, so students wanting to progress to an engineering related degree must be given the option of studying maths to Level 3. The intention should be to avoid T-Level students finding they have to complete a bridging course to enter university or that it represents a dead end.
Equally, universities should be engaging with government now to ensure they understand how to judge whether T-Level applicants are likely to succeed on their courses and preparing any additional support they might need.
Parity of esteem
It has long been an article of faith that we should have a technical education pathway that is held in the same high esteem as academic education. It is almost as much an article of faith that we have not yet succeeded in designing one. This deserves challenge. The government should recognise how much BTECs have achieved and make sure that the planned changes to technical education don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
University Alliance, Pearson and The Social Market Foundation have published a report about vocational routes to higher education.
Update – an earlier version of this article was incorrectly credited to Edward Peck. This has been updated.