In a new HEPI paper, Reforming BTECs: Applied General qualifications as a route to higher education (HEPI report 94), Dr Scott Kelly considers the rise in the number of university students holding BTECs.

Students arriving at university with BTECs account for much of the growth in students from the lowest participation neighbourhoods and other under-represented groups over the past decade. But those with BTECs face a ‘glass ceiling’ – for example:

  • only 15 BTEC students were accepted at the four most selective higher education institutions in 2015; and
  • under 60 per cent of students with BTECs at Russell Group universities complete their course.

Although BTEC students can fall behind other students, any reform to BTECs must recognise that, if this ‘middle option’ were lost, then much of the progress made to widening participation to higher education in recent years could be lost too.

Dr Scott Kelly, the author of the report, said:

BTECs engage students that other qualifications do not reach. But, when Sports Science has been growing faster than all other STEM subjects, their rapid growth raises important some questions. Young people need better information on the options they are choosing and universities need to ensure they are giving BTEC students the support they need.

Reform of BTECs is necessary, but it mustn’t come at the cost of reversing our progress in widening participation. Instead, we should tackle the problems, including rapid grade inflation, while maintaining the distinctiveness of BTECs. Above all, we must avoid the temptation of converting BTECs in to academic-lite qualifications.

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

The future belongs to countries with more highly-skilled people. The growth in BTECs has unlocked access to higher education in unprecedented ways, and this progress must be maintained.

But there is evidence that not all students understand how BTECs are different from other qualifications, that universities are not always ready for BTEC students and that policymakers do not understand the need to maintain BTECs’ existing strengths. Our research tackles these challenges head-on because we want BTECs to remain a respected, popular and distinctive qualification.

The report makes the following policy recommendations:

  • As the proportion of pupils achieving the highest BTEC grades (equivalent to three A-Levels) more than doubled from 17% to 38% between 2006 and 2013, the Government should evaluate whether the current system of external verification of BTECs is fit for purpose.
  • Universities should issue collective guidance on which BTECs are most valuable to students in terms of progression, as they have already done for A-Levels.
  • More prestigious universities with low numbers of BTEC students should consider bespoke access courses for BTEC students aimed at helping them adjust to the methods of teaching and assessment that are common in higher education.

Note for Editors:

  • Dr Scott Kelly lectures in British Politics at New York University in London and has worked for many years as a policy adviser to the Rt Hon. John Hayes MP, who was Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (2010-12). He previously worked for the Learning and Skills Network.  Dr Kelly is the author of The Myth of Mr Butskell: The Politics ofBritish Economic Policy 1950–55(Ashgate, 2002) and various academic articles and policy papers, including Raising productivity by improving higher technical education: Tackling the Level 4 and Level 5 conundrum (HEPI, 2015).
  • HEPI’s mission is to ensure that higher education policy-making is better informed by evidence and research.We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan.