BTEC students ‘less likely to gain top degrees’, suggests study

HEA-commissioned report says those with vocational background may need more support, but also warns against seeing such qualifications as inferior

July 6, 2015

Students who go to university with vocational qualifications like BTECs are less likely to achieve a first or 2:1 when they graduate, new research suggests.

The research, by academics at the University of Bath and commissioned by the Higher Education Academy, indicates that the difference may be even more pronounced in research-intensive universities.

However, the study also paints a more “nuanced picture” that suggests that such students “can feel more independent, self-motivated and capable than their counterparts with A-level qualifications”.

The research comes just a days after the latest figures showed a sharp rise in the number of people applying to university with qualifications like BTECs.

For the study, the Bath authors - Robin Shields, senior lecturer in higher education management and Alex Masardo, a teaching fellow in education - combined analysis of data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency with accounts obtained from student focus groups and staff interviews at two UK universities. One was a teaching-focussed institution and the other a research-intensive university.

They concluded that the analysis of Hesa data showed that across the sector, students with vocational qualifications (predominantly BTECs) were are less likely to receive a first or 2:1, “even controlling for relevant demographic background characteristics”.

“Furthermore, differences in outcomes are largest at research-intensive universities, where there are fewer students with vocational qualifications,” the report adds.

But the authors say the views they canvassed show that the choices made by students regarding qualifications “are complex and not necessarily shaped by academic ability, but rather a combination of interests, dispositional qualities, and the influences of peers and families”.

“The views of both students and staff suggest that, above all, it is important to avoid a deficit model when thinking about vocational qualifications,” the report concludes.

“Both students’ self-perceptions and the views of staff show that students bring a wide range of different experiences and learning abilities to their higher education studies, and that all of these abilities can be useful in helping them to succeed.”

Among a number of recommendations, the researchers say university tutors should be made more aware of the different academic backgrounds of students. They also question whether the marketing of qualifications needs greater regulation.

“Marketing for the BTEC suggests that the most likely progression route is a research-intensive university, but previous research shows that this is not representative of patterns in access…and this study shows that they are less likely to perform well academically while there, while simultaneously highlighting their academic potential and abilities,” the report says.

Stephanie Marshall, chief executive of the HEA, said: “This research highlights that more needs to be done to support the learning of students with vocational qualifications while they are in higher education.

“The number of students choosing BTECs is rising steadily. Different pathways into HE prepare students in different ways. All are valid, but as a sector we must work to fully understand the differences. Support for those teaching students, through appropriate training, is one key way of supporting students.”

Dr Masardo said: “While this study provides evidence that students with vocational qualifications are less likely to receive a first or second-class degree than those coming through more traditional routes, it also reveals the importance of avoiding thinking about vocational qualifications as in some way inferior.

“Students bring a wide range of different experiences and learning abilities to their higher education studies, all of which can be useful in helping them to succeed.”

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Reader's comments (2)

Maybe the immanent introduction of the Framework for Regulated Qualifications (FRQ) replacing the laxer NQV/QCF scheme with well defined levels, regularised learning time and credits for each course and subject, Ofqual accreditation and comprehensive reporting and monitoring of standardised performance across all subjects including GCSE, GCE and vocational/technica , may help better prepare the latter in particular for university studies, especially for the CAT scheme in HEs. Hopefully the hideous patchwork of vocational/technical education and low quality provision will soon be a thing of the past in the UK, but unlikely to be properly achieved without adequate public funding augmented by keen sponsorship from industry and commerce, including good quality apprenticeships. Much more to be done yet, and if successfully could advantageously impact the university curriculum as well.
The BTECs and Access qualifications in fact have been very successful in terms of increasing demand from the WP groups and enabling several adult and matured students to take up these qualifications. Unfortunately, these qualifications are certainly 'less preferred' when it comes to an entry to a University. They carry a lesser UCAS points and as such, deprived of aiming for a place in any reputed University and thus amounting in depriving aspiring students of their chance of getting into reputed Institutions /Universities. The vocational option would carry no purpose, if the Universities wish to accept the conventional A levels students alone. The research very rightly identified the unique quality of these students being self-motivated, committed and the experience that enables them to take up challenges. They require a right direction and apt support to achieve higher scales of success including 2:1 s. The situation necessitates a holistic review of the contents of BTECs, teaching methodology, assessment practices, and attainment of UCAS points at par with other qualifications, thereby enabling students achieving a particular level having equal opportunities and access to HE Institutions. The vocational nature of these qualifications, the demographics of students taking the BTEC route and the qualification standards should be understood by the Universities when they communicate on widening participation or Access to HE. On one hand we created these qualifications as alternatives to the main stream and yet unable to accept them for an entry to the Universities thus making their 'access to HE' a distant reality. WE cannot leave the BTECs students and the providers of these qualifications (FE Colleges & Independent Colleges) are unfortunately remaining under loved in the context.

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