Students are opting for A-levels rather than vocational courses in major areas such as business studies and science, according to Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University.
This year's general national vocational qualification results suggest that vocational qualifications are failing to establish an alternative route to higher education, says Professor Smithers.
The number of students completing Advanced GNVQ courses has increased by 6, 000 over the previous year, less than the increase in students taking English A-level.
In subjects such as business studies, which is available as either an academic or vocational course, the numbers gaining A-levels has increased by 4,835 over last year, compared with an increase of around 200 in the number of completions in Advanced GNVQ (equivalent to two A-levels).
"What the results seem to indicate is that where there is an equivalent A-level, students prefer that course to GNVQ. It may be that we are failing to establish applied education that has parity with the academic," says Professor Smithers.
In addition, a number of GNVQ courses, particularly manufacturing and management studies, have attracted relatively few students. This year only 111 students completed the manufacturing Advanced GNVQ and only 60 completed management studies by the expected date. (GNVQs are currently assessed on the basis of coursework and completion rates are based on those finishing the course in two years).
The Joint Council of National Vocational Awarding Bodies figures show the number of students gaining a GNVQ has gone up from 81,761 last year to 90,476. About 10 per cent of the awards were foundation, equivalent to four GCSEs grades D to G; half were intermediate, equivalent to four GCSEs grades A* to C and 40 per cent were two-year Advanced GNVQs, equivalent to two A-levels.
Dr Christina Townsend, chair of the Joint Council, said the results showed the rising popularity of the qualification as a route to employment and to continuing education.
At Advanced GNVQ, 94 per cent of students who applied for higher education received offers, she said. Last year's figures show about 22,000 GNVQ students were offered university places. Dr Townsend said the newer universities had been the first to admit GNVQ students, but more places were now being offered by the traditional universities.
However, Professor Smithers said the vocational boards had failed to point out that around half of GNVQ students recorded as getting university offers are in fact being placed on Higher National Diploma courses.
"We do need good applied education in schools and colleges and the Government has acknowledged that there have to be substantial changes," he says. "Courses in health and social care are developing clear ladders into nursing and caring professions and leisure and tourism has taken off because there is no A-level equivalent, but overall the growth in GNVQ is not as strong as we could have hoped for."
The joint board said GNVQ courses have only been available for four to five years and the evidence was that they are gradually gaining currency. The spokesman said the board was not aware of any study showing students are preferring A-level courses.
The Government intends to introduce externally-marked tests that count towards the final grade. GNVQs are awarded for successful completion of units. Students have to reach an appropriate level in basic skill tests, but the marks do not count for the final assessment.