As some of the first cohort of T-Level students recently started higher education, HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, takes a look at how universities have responded to the new qualification.
Universities are often accused of dragging their feet on T-Levels. One recent headline reads: ‘Confused and frustrated: Most universities reject first cohort of T Level students’. This situation is unfortunate because young people deserve clarity and breadth when it comes to choosing their options.
Yet the tale of how universities have responded to T-Levels is more complicated than the headlines suggest. It is not the case that institutions have refused to play ball. Rather, they have been on the receiving end of shifting policies.
When the T-Level route was first mooted, it was for people not on course for university. T-Levels were to provide an improved ‘technical option’ for those not on the separate ‘academic option’ that generally leads to a degree.
At the time, this technical option was ‘to be clearly delineated from the academic option’, with the two routes explicitly ‘designed for different purposes.’ While it was always thought some people would jump from one path to the other, it was also thought bridging courses would generally be necessary to make the leap.
Simultaneously, it seemed most people would not wish to make this leap because a better technical offer at Levels 4 and Level 5 would also improve the technical pathway. In the words of the Department for Education, this would be a good ‘alternative to a university degree’.
The Government’s plans had their detractors but there was an internal logic and in some ways an alluring simplicity to them. The changes could conceivably have made it easier for some people to make important decisions about their own lives. The challenge is that policy is rarely static and the T-Level story is one of mission creep followed by confusion.
In particular, it was originally decreed that it would be necessary to acquire Level 2 qualifications in English and Maths before acquiring a Level 3 T-Level. Ministers then began querying why universities were not welcoming T-Level students with open arms.
But in November 2021, they unwound this Level 2 requirement. Separately, they also suggested blocking access to degree courses for young people without a Level 2 qualification in English and Maths. So they were expecting universities to open their doors to T-Level students while removing the Level 2 requirement in English and Maths for T-Levels and simultaneously mooting a new Level 2 requirement for degree courses.
The shifting policy environment left universities, whose autonomy on admissions is enshrined in primary legislation, confused. They have had to keep up with the shifting ambitions of the numerous (currently nine) Secretaries of State for Education in place since the 2016 Sainsbury review first floated T-Levels while simultaneously struggling with other challenges, including COVID.
Universities have also had to cope with the threat of defunding other tried-and-tested Level 3 qualifications, such as BTECs, which have become a well-worn path to higher education in recent years.
So I sympathise with universities. It is no wonder some have felt unable to be clear about how they will treat a brand new qualification that has already been regularly changed and which is not yet fully rolled out.
Moreover, universities do not yet know how T-Level entrants will thrive (or otherwise) in their institutions. If it were ever to be the case that T-Level students were shown to struggle on traditional degree programmes, it would be irresponsible to encourage them to enrol without first developing an understanding of why and how to tackle the problem.
But despite all these jolts in the road, let me end where I started: it is in everyone’s interests – policymakers, employers and students – if universities are able to satisfy the needs of T-Level students. For example, it would make their campuses more diverse, thereby improving the learning environment, and boost the presence of historically under-represented groups.
So I hope we will soon see lots of T-Level students in UK universities. But in the end, it is also in everyone’s interests that the tiny minority of universities who remain unable to accept many T-Level students are crystal clear about any such decision and provide a clear evidence base as to why. Otherwise, young people won’t know where different options lead and that really would be unforgiveable.
This article originally appeared in the October issue of InTuition, the Society for Education and Training’s (SET) magazine, which is available here (£).