Labour has called on the government to halt its planned abolition of BTec qualifications, warning “a hasty charge” to move hundreds of thousands of learners to “unproven” T-levels “would be hugely irresponsible”.
The government announced in July 2021 its plan to cut funding to an as-yet-unknown number of level three qualifications to curb the number of courses for students in key stage five. Presently, over 3,000 level three qualifications receive funding from the Department for Education (DfE)
The DfE has not yet explained the terms of the cull but said it would end “poor quality” level three qualifications and those that duplicate skills or content provided in apprenticeships, T-Levels and A-levels, which “will become the main progression options after GCSEs”.
The initiative, set to begin in 2023 and complete by 2025, will offer what ministers promise are “clearer qualification and training routes” for young people after key stage four.
Around 230,000 students collected BTec qualifications yesterday.
Labour’s Toby Perkins, shadow minister for further education, urged the government to reconsider. BTec students should be “proud of their achievements”, he said, “against the backdrop of a Conservative government looking to devalue their qualifications”.
According to a Social Market Foundation (SMF) report from 2018, around 20% of university students in England studied BTec Nationals at key stage five. A further 10% studied a combination of A-levels and BTecs.
“Despite the high value placed on BTecs by employers and universities, the government plans to scrap most of these qualifications putting young people’s life chances at risk,” said Perkins. “The government’s alternative T-Level qualifications are currently unproven, and a hasty charge to abolish level three BTecs would be hugely irresponsible.”
BTec reforms ‘damage’ aspirations for thousands of students
That 2018 SMF report warned that, in England, 44% of white working-class university students qualified with at least one BTec. Forty-eight per cent of black British students at university have at least one BTec, and 37% accessed higher education with only BTecs.
In the northeast of England and Yorkshire, loci for the government levelling-up agenda, 48% of white working-class children that went to university had at least one BTec. In the northeast, 35% of white working-class students went to university with only BTecs.
The government’s alternative T-Level qualifications are currently unproven, and a hasty charge to abolish level three BTecs would be hugely irresponsible
– Toby Perkins, shadow further education minister
A report from the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), published in February 2021, concludes the proposed reforms to level three qualifications may set back progress made in widening access to HE by at least five years.
Using data from Ucas, NEON concluded that if only half of the students presently entering with BTecs from low participation areas fail to do so, the numbers entering from these areas will reverse to 2015 levels. Entree figures for disadvantaged students would return to those of 2010 if none access HE.
“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,” said Dr Graeme Atherton, director of NEON, in February. “Removing this option will fundamentally damage the future aspirations of thousands of learners.”
T-levels ‘should not come at the expense of choice’
The Association of Colleges has called for the government to slow down its “strong-armed approach”, warning that the “hasty scrapping” of hundreds of level 3 qualifications risked “leaving some of the most disadvantaged young people without routes into meaningful work”.
“As the voice of professional and technical universities, we are concerned by proposals to limit the range and availability of technical qualifications and pathways,” said University Alliance CEO Vanessa Wilson in July. “The government appears to be rushing headlong into creating a new system that will not meet the needs of all students and risks limiting student choice and flexibility.”
“Whilst we are fully supportive of the new T-Levels, they should not come at the expense of choice and the flexibility to blend academic, vocational and technical qualifications,” she continued, warning the reforms risked dividing academic from technical skills.
The University and College Union (UCU) has launched a campaign against the reforms, warning: “Cutting BTec funding would hamper plans to level up communities and widen participation.”
Analysis of non-continuation data by the Office for Students suggests students that enter higher education with either BTecs – or a combination of qualifications that includes BTecs – are more likely to drop out. Of the 2014-15 and 2015-16 cohorts, HE students with three BTecs with distinction – that is to say, those that achieved the highest results – are more likely to drop out than all groups with three A-levels, including those with three Cs or less. Of those students with distinctions, 11.6% did not remain in HE. Of those with three merits or below, 16.5% did not continue in HE.
The OfS concludes that most students entering HE with BTecs “are achieving successful outcomes”, but has sought to encourage universities to understand the “complex and multifaceted” reasons these students are more likely to quit university.