As a long-time advocate of diverse routes into, and forms of, higher education, I was pleased to read about the increasing acceptance of “BTECs” for entry on to university courses (“Student admissions bounce back after 2012 slump”, News, and “Social diversity in BTECs”, Letters, 29 January).
However, some clarification is in order. BTEC is not a single class of qualification but a brand (formerly the Business and Technology Education Council, absorbed into Edexcel and thence into Pearson) that includes awards at several levels, one of which – BTEC National – parallels A levels. If the figures quoted are for holders of BTEC Nationals, all well and good. However, I would like to know if they also include holders of Higher Nationals (equivalent in level to the first or second year of a full-time bachelor’s degree), and if so, how many were accepted directly into the second or final year. If significant numbers of Higher National students are being required to take a step back and start in the first year, this is not so good, particularly in this age of high fees when many will already have paid for one or two years of higher education.
It is good that modern universities are reclaiming the ability to widen participation and enhance social mobility for the less privileged that was curtailed when the coalition government reduced core allocations to make places “contestable” and introduced the disastrous AAB+ policy.
Times Higher Education’s treatment of one year’s figures picks out some exceptions among the elite universities. What it does not do is record the longer-term trends, which go beyond the fees hike aberration. So, for example, the extra places allocated to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (despite their intention not to expand) were never filled. Institutional strategic autonomy ruled. Indeed, the figures from Ucas show that Oxford’s intake of UK students for 2014-15 was the lowest since 2008-09, and Cambridge had its second lowest intake over the same period. The University of Birmingham’s surge might be attributed to its policy of making unconditional offers before exam results are known were it not for comments in the Ucas End of Cycle report that say that candidates who were made such offers usually held them as their insurance option.
So there is still a lot of learning to do if the shift to a corporate entrepreneurial culture, which has been encouraged by the removal of number controls and by the weighting accorded to impact in the research excellence framework, is to be better managed, assuming the marketisation of higher education will continue.
Emeritus professor of higher education and management
University of Greenwich