Applying changes

A rising proportion of university applicants will have vocational qualifications. The sector must respond, says Mary Curnock Cook

April 18, 2013

Source: Elly Walton

Last month, a little-noticed consultation was launched by the Department for Education about vocational qualifications for 16- to 19-year-olds.

The lack of fanfare is perhaps not surprising, but it is worrying given that - as the report itself sets out - nearly 50 per cent of those learning at Level 3 are now pursuing vocational qualifications. The number of students taking vocational qualifications at this level has trebled since the mid-1990s, while the number taking A levels has increased by just a fifth. And the consequence of this? “The proportion of students entered for purely academic qualifications has been in steady decline in recent years - from 70 per cent in 2008 to 51 per cent in 2012,” the report explains.

There are a number of reasons why higher education needs to sit up and take notice of both the consultation and these striking statistics. First, the consultation itself does not emphasise the importance of progression to higher education, and it is disturbingly light on what it is about the content of vocational qualifications that might make them a suitable preparation for higher education.

Second, the data in the consultation about the vertiginous rise of vocational qualifications, and the matching precipitous decline of the A level as the principal curriculum for 16- to 19-year-olds, have profound implications for future demand for higher education.

The sector is already facing the dual effects of tuition fee rises and population decline. So far, the increase in post-16 participation in vocational qualifications has generally come in addition to those students who are studying for A levels. But if overall participation at Level 3 stays flat while the proportion opting for vocational qualifications continues to grow, the number studying A levels would consequently fall and thus deplete the sector’s preferred pool of applicants to higher education.

These trends are even more portentous in the light of pressure on the sector to widen participation. As the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service’s End of Cycle Report for 2012 shows, recent improvements in participation among less affluent groups have been largely among those taking BTECs, and these students have predominantly gone on to study at higher education institutions with less-demanding entry requirements. If participation is to grow, this fact suggests a strong need for the sector to ensure that vocational qualifications will support success in higher education. At the same time, there is the possibility that the coalition government’s policy of increasing the rigour of A levels could translate into a further flight from academic qualifications to vocational qualifications.

These are all good reasons for higher education to engage in the DfE consultation. Respondents may, however, wish to comment more widely than the rather narrow consultation questions suggest.

More pertinent questions would relate to the engagement and motivation of students pursuing vocational qualifications, the kind of curriculum they might experience, and the appropriate level of content and challenge.

It is difficult to find an official definition of Level 3 qualifications. Ofqual’s website simply gives examples of qualifications that are Level 3, such as A levels and BTECs. The government’s information portal, directs you back to Ofqual, which tells you that “qualifications at the same level are a similar level of demand or difficulty”.

This takes me to my final point. If the DfE and Ofqual were to revisit the question of what Level 3 means exactly, they might find it easier to develop a coherent approach towards qualifications for 16- to 19-year-olds providing preparation for higher study.

The situation currently is not straightforward. Ucas data clearly show that popular vocational qualifications such as BTECs are not used for progression to higher education in the same way as A levels. Of the estimated 200,000 Level 3 BTEC students in 2012, only about half applied to higher education through Ucas. And when these students do apply, they are a third more likely to be unsuccessful than those holding A levels. They are also many times less likely to enter an institution with more demanding entry requirements - despite the fact that, somewhat counter- intuitively, a quarter of English “AAB+” students accepted into higher education via Ucas in 2012-13 held BTECs.

If Level 3 indicates preparation for higher education, and if half such students are taking vocational qualifications and form a rapidly growing proportion of potential applicants, these issues must quickly become much more prominent in the debate about qualification reform.

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