BTEC students face 'glass ceiling', report suggests

Report by Higher Education Policy Institute reveals 'yawning gap' between how BTEC students think they will fare at university and progression rates

Tes Reporter

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Poor progression rates of BTEC students at top universities raises “fundamental questions” about the qualification's purpose, a new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) concludes.  

The report, published today, shows that just 15 BTEC students were accepted at the four most selective universities in 2015, and under two-thirds (60 per cent) of students with BTECs at Russell Group universities go on to complete their course. According to the report, BTEC students are also more likely to drop out of university, achieve a lower class of degree and have lower average earnings after graduation, compared to those who hold A levels.

The proportion of students achieving the highest BTEC grades (equivalent to three A levels) has more than doubled from 17 per cent to 38 per cent between 2006 and 2013. The report recommends that the government evaluate whether the current system of external verification of BTECs is fit for purpose, and that universities with low numbers of BTEC students should consider bespoke access courses for BTEC students to help them adjust to university.

'A respected, popular and distinctive qualification'

Dr Scott Kelly, the author of the report, said: “Reform of BTECs is necessary, but it mustn’t come at the cost of reversing our progress in widening participation. Instead, we should tackle the problems, including rapid grade inflation, while maintaining the distinctiveness of BTECs. Above all, we must avoid the temptation of converting BTECs in to academic-lite qualifications.’

Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said: “The future belongs to countries with more highly-skilled people. The growth in BTECs has unlocked access to higher education in unprecedented ways, and this progress must be maintained. But it would be irresponsible to ignore the important policy questions because there is a yawning gap between how BTEC students think they will fare at university and how they actually fare. That raises important questions for policymakers, universities and students themselves.

“There is evidence that not all students understand how BTECs are different from other qualifications, that universities are not always ready for BTEC students and that policymakers do not understand the need to maintain BTECs’ existing strengths. Our research tackles these challenges head-on because we want BTECs to remain a respected, popular and distinctive qualification.”

Rod Bristow, president of Pearson in the UK, said: "This welcome report makes a strong case for the  continuing role of BTEC in widening participation in higher education.

"2017 is the first year that many BTEC students will undertake external assessments as part of their qualification. Previously the regulatory framework demanded regular, ongoing, internal assessment as the method for evaluating student performance. This is a significant and welcome change, and one we have embraced – developing and devising the new assessments alongside our employer and higher education partners.”

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