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Universities can’t afford to make the same admissions mistakes with T Levels as they have with the BTEC

  • 11 January 2022
  • By Alex Blower

This blog was contributed by Dr. Alex Blower, Access and Participation Manager at Arts University Bournemouth.

For a number of years, some areas of the higher education sector have taken a less than consistent approach the treatment of applicants holding vocational qualifications. It’s an issue that has been commented upon in national newspapers, and discussed at length by universities and qualification providers. But most importantly, it’s something that directly impacts upon the 100,000 vocational students making applications to higher education Providers each year.

Back in 2019, I produced a video on the issue and put it on my youtube channel. Usually with these vlogs I’m lucky if I get a couple of hundred views from friends and family. However, the number for this video stands at around 20,000, and they’re mostly from young people. If you’d like to see first-hand the impact that unequal approaches to admissions for vocational learners has on young people, I’d suggest having a quick look at the comments. Some of them are pretty harrowing.

Since 2018, bodies like the NEON Supporting BTEC Students Working Group, have been advocating for transparency in approaches taken by institutions to the admission of BTEC students. And we’ve seen some good progress. Now if you’re a BTEC student holding a prospectus for say, the University of Leeds, you can easily see if you’re qualification is acceptable for your course of interest. However, even on this front, there’s still a long way to go. Browse through the prospectuses of universities with higher entry tariffs and you’re still more likely to find entry requirements for the International Baccalaureate (a qualification undertaken by around 4,500 UK students each year) than you are for the BTEC.

However, change is afoot. Anybody keeping even a loose eye on the post-16 qualification landscape would have seen the recent plans by Government to do away with the BTEC almost in its entirety. This of course, is a terrible idea, and has rightly received a large amount of pushback from politicians across the political spectrum, qualification providers and the education sector more widely. But it shows a demonstrable commitment within policy circles to make T Levels the new post-16 vocational qualification of choice.

And they’re making their way to us quickly. The first cohort taking T Levels began the qualification in 2020, which means universities can expect to see applications form next September. So, given the lessons learned from the BTEC, are universities ready to offer a more consistent approach to T Levels? Well, no, not at the moment.

On 17th December the Education and Skills Funding Agency published a list of 74 universities that had confirmed T Levels were suitable for one of their courses. Not some courses, but one course. Unfortunately, the website doesn’t go as far as to say what that one course is. Instead, it suggests that students check websites and ring institutional admissions teams for further clarification. T Level students are now 9 months away from arriving at university, and information is sparse. Is this really good enough?

Given what we know about learners holding vocational qualifications being significantly more likely to come from groups which are currently underrepresented in Higher Education, universities need to be clear and vocal about their position on T Levels. Unfortunately as a sector, we have let vocational students down all too frequently. With the rollout of T Levels, we have a collective opportunity to learn form our mistakes and do things differently. To ensure that, due to ill preparedness, we don’t create yet another structural hurdle to higher education for groups from underrepresented backgrounds to jump. But if we are to achieve that, institutions need to take action. And they need to do it quickly. 

1 comment

  1. As ever, Alex, you make some highly pertinent points here in relation to the highly expensive and poorly thought through venture that Conservative Governments put in to T-Levels. It was apparent quite far back in their early development that universities were cautious about getting on board with them. Hopefully, anyone working with year 11s in IAG for the last 2-3 years had the foresight to see this coming and therefore advise pupils and parents to treat the T levels coming down the track with extreme caution. Sadly, though, as you point out, some students have got on the T -Level train, and there is a real risk that in summer 2022 they might struggle to reach their final destination of university smoothly – it will be as if a bumpy ‘replacement bus service’ will be the route to university for them. Equally, I imagine that many employers (the majority of whom are SMEs (Small Medium Employers) in England will be curious about what exactly a T-Level demonstrates. As part of my own PhD research, I recall an excellent article in this vein was produced in 2020 by L Rogers and K Spours at UCL https://bera-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/berj.3630 Worth a read !

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