Universities seeking high-achieving applicants are increasingly turning to students with vocational qualifications, figures show.
Almost 500,000 students will begin a UK degree course this autumn, with the number of domestic and European Union students increasing by 4 per cent on last year, according to admissions body Ucas.
But despite the record intake - which includes more than 38,000 international students - the number of freshers achieving A‑level grades of ABB or better this year fell by 3 per cent, says the Ucas report published on23 September.
This year, some 2,500 fewer students starting university in England achieved ABB+ at A level, taking the overall total to 75,750, says the report, Interim Assessment of Ucas Acceptances by Intended Entry Year, Country of Institution and Qualifications Held.
Meanwhile, the number of BTEC students in England with grades equivalent to ABB+ climbed by 16 per cent, rising by 4,840 to 34,580 - accounting for about a third of all “high-tariff” university entrants, who do not count towards caps on undergraduates.
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, said that it was now “hard to ignore the increasing importance of vocational qualifications such as BTECs” and that policymakers should “consider ways to increase participation in A levels”.
She has previously warned about the shift from A levels to BTECs, saying that they “typically produce students who are well versed in practical and laboratory work but who might struggle to cope with the extending reading and writing required for many courses, let alone for exams themselves”.
Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, said that it was clear that universities of all types now accept BTECs, despite traditionalists’ concerns that they are an easier option than A levels.
“If it’s true that high-tariff universities are growing fastest - and I think it is - then it’s pretty clear that they can’t all be doing it via ABB at A level,” Mr Westwood said.
“I’d guess that because vocational results are also out earlier in the year, there is also more of a window to take a good look at [BTEC] applicants,” he added.
But Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said that universities struggling to fill courses with A‑level students should think carefully before turning toBTEC students.
“If BTECs lead to a related subject at degree level, that is one thing; but [unlike A levels] they do not help you to study academic subjects at degree level,” Professor Smithers said. Grade inflation was also likely to be a greater issue for BTECs than A levels, he added.
“While A levels have come under close regulation from Ofqual, BTECs have not come under the same scrutiny,” Professor Smithers said.
Ucas also said that the number of EU students starting degrees in England has risen by 8 per cent this year (an extra 1,530 people), comprising about 15 per cent of the 9,820 extra student places in England taken up so far.
The number of Welsh students heading to English universities also climbed, by 9 per cent (an extra 660 students), while almost 500 more English students took up places in Scotland, an 11 per cent increase.
Total student intake is likely to rise by about 10,000 or so before the 2014 admissions cycle closes, Ucas adds.