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Universities must revisit BTECs as a route to higher education

A new SMF report highlights the need to pay more attention to vocational routes to qualification and career. Edward Peck sings the praises of an older answer to this question: the BTEC.
This article is more than 5 years old

Gabriel Huntley is the Head of Communications and External Relations at University Alliance 

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.

3 responses to “Universities must revisit BTECs as a route to higher education

  1. BTEC gave me a route out of unskilled, morale sapping, very low wage factory work to a top ten University over thirty years ago. So I’ve naturally got a lot to thank it for!

    I am grateful to have had the opportunity to study in a Russell Group institution and loved the rigour of my chosen subject, which was a traditional academic one. But my BTEC taught me so, so much. The cross modular assignments on my HND were also great for co-operative problem solving. I personally think these assignments were better for building communication skills than the more traditional essays I had to write at University. So it’s really interesting to read the comments here about younger BTEC students.

    I hope all Universities give these students a chance to show what they can do, not just the University Alliance ones. I’ve been so fortunate and I hope other students following the BTEC route will be too.

  2. Is it really true that BTECS have promoted social mobility? Don’t they actually perpetuate inequality by providing a route (that is seen, wrongly, as a second-best) more likely to be used by disadvantaged students, and left a-levels for the better-off. Until a true mix of students are taking a full range of qualifications, regardless of their socio-economic situation, the system remains broken.

  3. The difference in entry skills between BTEC and A level qualifications have long been recognised especially in disciplines where BTECs are common place such as engineering. Over 20 years ago, one of my first student experience tasks at the university at which I worked was to developed bridging sessions for students with non-traditional entry qualifications such as BTECs and APL.

    In recent years, BTECs have fantastically helped widen participation. The problem has been universities failing to bridge the vocational and theoretical skills/knowledge gap and ensure the curriculum can embrace a range of entry qualifications. This is partly why BTEC students commonly have a higher drop out rate than those with A levels.

    My brother in the early 80s was written off at school but he did an apprenticeship and day release undertaking BTECs. He got distinctions all round, went to Brunel and did an MEng Sandwich Engineering . Now he is one of the world’s leading Marine safely design engineers. BTECs have their place and changes society and peoples lives.

    The problem is HE trying to squeeze everyone through the same eye of a needle. In HE today, too much emphasis is placed on adopting a ‘one size fits all’ approach to learning and the student experience which does not help our diverse entry qualification student body. So often I hear colleagues in HE say that it is ‘not our job to prepare students for university’. Yes it is and it is our responsibility to provide support to help them bridge the skills for their new learning environment!

    If we move to the model of supporting the individual learner and providing them with the opportunity to bridge their skill gaps then there should not be a problem. But it takes will, care and energy and that seems to be in short supply in HE today.

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