Some 38 per cent of students who took the equivalent of three BTECs achieved the top grades possible – three Distinctions (D) – in 2012-13, compared with just 17 per cent who did the same in 2005-06, according to a report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England published on 26 February.
In contrast, the proportion of students gaining top marks in A levels stayed relatively constant over the same period, with 17 per cent of students gaining three As or higher in 2012-13 compared with 16 per cent seven years earlier, according to the report, titled Young Participation in Higher Education: A-levels and Similar Qualifications.
While debate about grade inflation has largely centred around GCSEs and A levels, the Hefce report suggests that the phenomenon may be far more prevalent in vocational qualifications.
The figures may reflect that many more students, including academically gifted ones, are taking BTECs than before, with the overall number taking three BTECs more than doubling between 2005 and 2012.
But the increased popularity of BTECs may also concern universities, as students taking them are far less likely to progress into higher education, the Hefce report says.
Of those who achieved DDD in their BTECs, just 66 per cent progressed into higher education, the report says.
Some 95 per cent of those who achieved the equivalent grades at A level – AAA – entered university, says Hefce.
Indeed, a student gaining CDD at A level was more likely to go to university (some 68 per cent did) than someone gaining top marks in their BTECs, Hefce says.
The report may prompt questions about whether top universities should recognise high marks at BTEC in the same way as they do strong grades at A level.
A recent Ucas report found the number of A-level students accepted to university had flatlined over recent years, with most of the increase in student numbers coming from those holding BTECs.
Critics say that the practical-based qualifications do not adequately prepare students for essay writing, independent study and other aspects of academic life required for degree-level study.
The report also shows that about a fifth of students who take three A levels do not take a single “facilitating” subject such as maths, English or a foreign language.
Highly selective universities encourage students to take these subjects because they say they provide the broader academics skills required for degree study. Only half of A-level students take at least two A levels in facilitating subjects, the report adds.