BTec students fare less well at university than A-level students, finds new report

Students with different level three qualifications have diverse outcomes at university but researchers conclude that BTecs remain a key tool in supporting disadvantaged students into higher education

Although students gaining access to university via BTecs tend to fare less well academically at university, a new research paper argues that the qualification is vital to ensuring many disadvantaged students access higher education. 

BTecs provide a route into university for a quarter of young entrants from England, with those taking the qualification more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds than peers with A-levels, the four-year study shows. 

The data of more than a million students between 2013/14 and 2017/18 suggests those gaining access via BTecs fared less well in their studies than those who arrived at university with A-levels. But the majority of graduates with BTecs graduate with at least a 2:1, which demonstrates, researchers say, that, in most cases, BTecs “lead to university success”.

The findings come from a major study of 1.4 million students between 2013/14 and 2017/18, led by Dr Catherine Dilnot at Oxford Brookes University. Her team compared the academic pathways of BTec and A-level students who had achieved the same educational attainment at age 16.

On the whole, those students gaining access via BTecs fared less well in their studies than those who arrived at university with A-levels, the review found. Students with BTecs were 1.7 times as likely to repeat their first year and nearly twice as likely to drop out before their second year of university as A-level students (11% versus 6%). 

Sixty per cent of those with just BTecs graduated with a 2.1 or higher, but they were 1.4 times as likely to graduate below a 2:1 than similar students with just A-levels. 

Though there are differences between the outcomes of students with a combination of A-levels and BTecs compared with just A-levels, the differences are smaller than between those entering with exclusively BTecs or A-levels, the report found. 

It should be remembered that, without the availability of BTecs, many disadvantaged students might not have attended university at all
Dr Catherine Dilnot, Oxford Brookes University.

The findings come as the Office for Students (OfS) – under instructions from the Department for Education – looks to set minimum student outcome data benchmarks for higher education institutions. In a speech in November 2021, in which she announced that universities must rewrite access and participation plans, higher education minister Michelle Donelan said she wants “to make getting on as important as getting in” to university social mobility. Reducing dropout rates is a key area for action. The government is also keen to reform level three qualifications with the introduction of T-levels. 

Dr Dilnot said these figures on outcomes must be viewed besides statistics that show “without the availability of BTecs, many disadvantaged students might not have attended university at all”.

While some people may take these findings as evidence that the education secretary need not have deferred plans to withdraw funding from many BTecs, Dr Dilnot suggests they may be missing the bigger picture.

“We welcome the planned postponement of the removal of funding for most BTecs and would encourage further consideration of their future,” she said. 

“It’s very important to note that, although there are differences between outcomes for BTec and A-level students, the overwhelming majority of students entering with BTecs or combinations do not drop out, and the majority of those graduating do so with at least a 2:1.”

Limited analysis from one university that offered researched detailed module scores suggests those with BTecs perform less well on exam-assessed than coursework-assessed modules. Recent reforms to BTecs stipulating students must have a proportion of external assessment “may prepare BTec students better for university exams”, the review said – but added it was too early to notice the impact of these changes. 

Prof Lindsey Macmillan and Dr Gill Wyness of UCL Institute of Education’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities were the co-investigators in the research. “It is clearly important to address the differences in university outcomes between those with A-levels and BTecs, working with universities, qualifications authorities and government to ensure BTec students can flourish at university,” said Dr Wyness.

A group representing vice-chancellors has warned the OffS that its multiple objectives might negatively impact social mobility by causing universities to prioritise too much. For example, promoting access to HE while at the same time imposing tighter outcomes-based regulation on student progression. “Too strict a focus on outcomes may make providers more risk-averse in their admissions decisions and local partnerships,” Universities UK warned. 

Read more: NEON offers five-point plan for widening access

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