The numbers of students starting university courses after studying BTECs is rising. However, these students are less likely to graduate with a top degree than their peers who took A levels, according to a new study.
The report argues that there are still misconceptions about the abilities and qualifications of those who choose to study alternatives to A levels.
The University of Sheffield, which carried out the research, said it is "crucial" that these misconceptions are challenged to ensure that higher education is open to all.
Review of post-18 education
The University of Sheffield worked with local colleges over an 18-month period to look at the transition of students who had studied courses other than A levels to its institution.
It found that the numbers of students at the university who had studied BTECs alone had doubled from 202 in 2011 to 412 in 2017.
During that period, the numbers with A levels only had remained static, from 13,437 in 2011, to 13,443 in 2017, while the numbers who held both A level and BTEC qualifications had soared from just 36 to 377.
"The numbers of students holding a BTEC has increased over time as a percentage share of university applications," the report says, adding that apprenticeships and the government's new T levels "are likely to increase the trend towards a greater mix of pre-entry level qualifications, other than A levels".
The figures also show that those with BTECs, or a combination of qualifications, were less likely to leave university with a first or 2:1 than those who just studied A levels.
Overall, just over 80 per cent of A level-only students gained a good degree in 2011, compared with just under 80 per cent of those with BTECs and A levels and around 50 per cent of those with BTECs alone.
By 2016, around 90 per cent of A-level students were getting a first or 2:1, compared with around 80 per cent of those who both types of qualifications, and just over 60 per cent for those with BTECs only.
"Overall, the percentage of students who obtained a good degree during 2011-2016 is consistently higher for students who entered the university with A levels only, but it is not clear whether this can best be explained by differing ability or by the fact students with equivalent qualifications are less understood or less recognised as a minority, or other reasons," the study says.
Danger of 'discrimination'
The report also concludes that views of students and staff involved in the study show that it is important that there is a better understanding of BTECs and degree content.
It adds: "Without evidence, there is a danger the perception that vocational qualifications do not prepare students well for higher education causes direct discrimination against those holding equivalent qualifications to A levels and indirect discrimination against those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
"There is also a danger that those students holding equivalent qualifications and with the potential to succeed in a selective university are denied the opportunity to do so."
Professor Wyn Morgan, Sheffield's vice-president for education, said: "Challenging misconceptions about students who come to university via equivalent BTEC qualifications compared to those on the traditional academic route of A level is crucial, as higher education should be open to all those with talent and ability.
"The findings have helped us develop greater awareness and understanding of equivalent qualifications, as well as provided universities with recommendations to further develop their own teaching and support in order to continue to offer students the best possible experience at university."
Pearson, which runs BTECs and was involved in the project, said: "Pearson has been engaging with higher education institutions in recent years to monitor the success of those students on their degree programmes. The consistent message that we have received is that, provided that they complete the first year, BTEC students do very well."