Scrapping BTECs will narrow access to English universities

T levels are an alternative to A levels, not to level 1-3 vocational courses. Students need both options, says Sam Parrett

March 26, 2023
A narrow alley in Oxford, symbolising widening participation
Source: iStock

The Department for Education’s own statistics highlight that people in England with degree-level qualifications have higher employment rates and earn more over a lifetime than their non-graduate counterparts.

Employment rates for graduates are also higher – 86.7 per cent versus 70.2 per cent, which is by no means an insignificant difference. The Office for National Statistics’ Annual Population Survey in 2015-16 even indicated that graduates have a “greater sense of personal well-being” and are “happier” than those without a university qualification.

Yet despite these very clear advantages of gaining higher-level qualifications, the DfE is ploughing on with reforms to level 3 (post-16) qualifications that run a serious risk of shutting down accessible pathways to university for many people from non-traditional backgrounds.

To put the scale of the issue into context, 15 per cent of accepted applicants to a UK university last year held BTECs or other applied general qualifications – or a combination of them and A levels. This amounts to about 75,000 people.

From 2025, however, most of these qualifications won’t exist in England, replaced by a far smaller number of two-year T-level courses. While I am supportive of these new technical-based qualifications, they are in no way a direct replacement for the ones that will be lost.

The reality is that T levels are academically rigorous and will not be suited to everyone studying for a BTEC. They are ultimately an A-level alternative for people who get at least five GCSEs, as opposed to being an alternative level 1-3 vocational course for those who don’t. In that sense, the government is wrongly pitching T levels against BTECs, when, in fact, they should be pitched against A levels.

Many students currently choose to study a mix of A levels and BTECs – but this will not be possible with T levels, which are large yet narrow qualifications. The decision about which post-16 route to pursue will become completely binary, with no third way and no option for those who are unable to do A levels or T levels.

Consequently, these reforms will leave many people without an accessible or achievable pathway to university. The effect that this will have on social mobility is illustrated by the fact that 44 per cent of white working-class university entrants studied for at least one BTEC, according to 2018 research by the Social Market Foundation. The same report also highlighted the fact that more than a third (37 per cent) of black students enter university with only BTEC qualifications. So the likely impact on EDI of shutting down BTECs is also clear to see.

The government is right to want to ensure that every qualification on offer is high-quality and relevant, and T levels are robust and good additions to the level 3 portfolio. But I am not arguing for the establishment of a two-tier system of qualifications, with one being lower quality than the other. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of university students with BTECs gain at least an upper second class degree. The point is that T levels simply aren’t accessible to some people in the same way that BTECs and other vocational qualifications can be.

T levels will also take time to bed in. Hence, ministers are pursuing a risky strategy by sticking to the stipulated 2025 defunding point for BTECs. The inaugural T levels, which begin in 2024, won’t even have completed their two-year cycle by then, so the qualification’s success will be unproven.

The government’s reforms should, instead, be focusing on creating a suite of flexible pathways that enable people from all backgrounds to progress successfully through levels of education and into fulfilling careers. This must include consideration of the one in five young people who leave school without five good GCSEs. A three-year post-16 programme is needed to enable such students to sustain their studies and progress to a higher level, but the reforms don’t cover this crucial element.

Modular, “bite-sized” level 3 qualifications are also needed, which can be added to and built on. These would provide a truly accessible route to university entrance for people to fit around their lives and family commitments.

Such approaches would help rather than hinder the many disadvantaged groups who would benefit so greatly from the many life opportunities that higher education offers.

Sam Parrett is group principal and CEO of London South East Colleges.

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