Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Defend – don’t defund – proven qualifications for school leavers

  • 28 April 2022

In a new paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (, Holding Talent Back? What is next for the future of Level 3?, 11 different authors consider the Westminster Government’s controversial reforms to Level 3 qualifications, including BTECs.

While the Government has confirmed that many Applied General qualifications can continue to play a role in the Level 3 landscape, with ‘significantly less than half’ defunded, the issue as recognised by the Rt Hon. the Lord (David) Willetts in his Foreword, is which qualifications ‘will survive [by the end of all these reforms] and how many students will be able to study them.’ 

Collectively, the chapters argue that England risks closing off a useful and proven route for students from a wide range of backgrounds, including those hoping to reach higher education.

The authors also argue that the new T Levels, which are designed to sit place alongside A Levels, are welcome but still need to prove themselves. The report argues their success should not rest on shutting off tried-and-tested options that are popular with employers, higher education institutions and students.

In his Foreword to the report, the Rt Hon. the Lord David Willetts FRS, a former Minister for Universities and Science (2010-14), writes:

Every year about 240,000 BTEC Level 3 Nationals are completed across the UK, as part of a one or two-year study programme, largely by students aged 16-to-18, as well as 19 and over. Yet the Government’s proposal to remove the funding for them is proceeding with little wider public debate and challenge. Imagine by contrast that the Government were planning to remove the funding for A Levels. There would be intense public and political debate going beyond the practitioners who are close to the issue.

In her chapter, Mary Curnock Cook, Non-Executive Director and Chair of Pearson Education Ltd Board and a HEPI Trustee, writes:

With good reason, many commentators are worried about the impact on equality and diversity of the proposed changes to funding for BTECs and other Level 3 Applied General qualifications. The Department for Education’s own Impact Assessment indicates that fewer students are likely to achieve Level 3 because of these reforms. This is odd because Level 3, as well as being the springboard for progression to higher education, is also the foundation on which the Government’s Level 4 / Level 5 and higher technical skills ambitions will be built.

In his chapter, John Cope, Executive Director at UCAS, writes:

While there is evidence that technical qualifications offer narrower and lower rates of progression, we must not overlook their contribution to levelling up. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are three times more likely to hold only BTEC qualifications than those from more advantaged backgrounds. So it is clear that BTECs currently support opportunity for progression to university or college for many disadvantaged students.

In her chapter, Salsabil Elmegri, NUS Vice President for Further Education, writes:

[I]t is impossible to square the Government’s stated ambition to “level up” opportunity with the plan to reduce BTECs. The qualifications are engines of social mobility, with the Department for Education’s own Equalities Impact Assessment stating “those from SEND backgrounds, Asian ethnic groups, disadvantaged backgrounds, and males [are] disproportionately likely to be affected”. While some students will take A Levels and T Levels instead, reducing BTECs will just mean many more students are going to drop out of education altogether.

In their chapter, Sam Freedman and Sarah Taunton of Ark write:

We share concerns that moving to a different system, where most young people do either A Levels or T Levels, would narrow options too much. While T Levels will be the right qualification for those who are clear about the industry they want to work in, many students have not made that decision when they start their post-16 study. The under-informed choice of a specialist pathway could lead to substantial dropping out and inappropriate learning for future work and education. We believe it is important to preserve a third route for more general vocational qualifications that support a wide range of skills sought after by employers while also keeping the route open to higher education.

In his chapter, Professor Graeme Atherton, Head of Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up and Director for NEON, writes:

[D]efunding many BTECs could set back the progress made in widening access to higher education from those from low participation neighbourhoods by 10 years. … [There is] a strong feeling that BTECs represent a route into higher education uniquely suited to the needs of particular groups of students, many of whom are from widening access backgrounds. They also prepare students well for certain types of higher education courses.

In his chapter, Professor Hubert Ertl, Vice President and Director of Research at the Federal Institute for Vocational Education (BIBB) in Germany, writes:

Given the blurring of boundaries between higher and vocational education in Germany and the strong status of both sectors in their own right, it is not surprising that education and training provision at the interface of the sectors is growing. The most important growth has arguably taken place in dual study programmes (duale Studiengänge). These programmes represent educational formats in which higher education institutions collaborate with companies to offer courses that combine theoretical, academic learning and practical, vocational learning, resulting in competencies directly relevant to the world of work.

In his chapter, Steve Wallis, Executive Director of Quality at NCG, writes:

It is right that the current offer for 16-year olds should, and can, be simplified. NCG is supportive of the introduction of the T Level brand which, with the right targeted investment, has the potential to be a real “levelling-up” factor for vocational education that many in the sector have campaigned for. However, the narrowing down of student choice will make it too simple, and risks excluding learners who do not necessarily suit, or even want, these routes.

In his chapter, Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of the Engineering Professors’ Council and Chief Executive of Push, writes:

If we want to meet the nation’s needs in terms of STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] skills and ensure that those skills may be found among a wider cross-section of the populace and in the process create opportunities for all, wherever they may be born and under whatever circumstances, then BTECs must remain. No better option is available. Until then, universities should embrace the diversity of potential students and – to ensure their success – teach the student and not merely the course.

In his chapter, Professor David Phoenix, the Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University (LSBU) and Chief Executive of the LSBU Group, writes:

The skills landscape may be complex, but so too are the needs of learners and the economy. … [C]omplexity is an inherent part of educational provision, if it is to meet the needs of a wide range of potential learners. Properly resourced careers and educational professionals need to be well-equipped to help learners navigate that complexity.

Rather than attempting to improve the outcomes of learners by reducing their choice, learners should be empowered with properly funded careers guidance that enables them to understand which qualifications can help them to meet their educational and career aspirations.

Notes for Editors

  1. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.
  2. HEPI has worked with Pearson, who offer BTECs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, on this collection and Pearson have kindly offered financial support for the project. However, editorial control was maintained by HEPI and the paper was subject to our usual peer-review process (with any potential conflicts of interest being declared).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *