New evidence released by The National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) shows that the government’s proposed reforms to Level 3 qualifications may set back progress made in widening access to higher education (HE) by at least five years.
Nearly a third of all 18-year-old students entering HE in 2020 from areas of the lowest HE participation – and a third of all black students – did so with at least one BTEC qualification.
The government is proposing that the vast majority of Applied General Qualifications (AGQs) including the BTEC qualification be defunded from 2024 with students only able to choose from A-Levels or the new T-Levels.
The NEON report, ‘Will abolishing BTECs mean reversing widening access to higher education?’, draws on Ucas data on HE participation from 2011 to 2020 – as well as the findings from a survey of 48 NEON members in November/December 2020 – to examine the impact of defunding these qualifications on widening access to higher education and social mobility.
If only half of students presently entering with BTECs from low participation areas are unable to do so, then the numbers entering from these areas will reverse to 2015 levels. If none are able to enter, says the report, a decade’s progress in enabling those from the areas the government wishes to ‘level up’ to enter HE will be lost.
Of those surveyed, 90% feel the BTEC option is crucial for students from widening access backgrounds and that the new system will have a “devastating” impact on social mobility.
Respondents expressed concern that:
- Academically able young people from low-income backgrounds would be forced into T-Levels they did not want to do.
- A-Level provision was severely lacking in their area thus removing that option for learners.
- Demand for technical occupations was low in certain areas and a rapid increase in T-Level learners as many are denied HE progression would lead to higher unemployment as we try and build back better after Covid.
There was strong support for improving vocational options for young people at Level 3 and for T-Levels to succeed but many felt removing BTECs would deny many young people the right to enter higher education.
A comment from one respondent, the University of East Anglia, said “Understanding of, and work to rectify, the gap between those doing different qualifications entry and success whilst at university is really now starting to take off and I believe that moves to remove the most popular alternative qualification so suddenly will push such vital work back many years or even decades.”
“The ability to take an applied general qualification suits the needs of many learners who in particular want to enter the kind of vocational HE courses the government is keen to see expand,” says Dr. Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON).
“Removing this option will fundamentally damage the future aspirations of thousands of learners.”