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Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) - Holding talent back? What is next for the future of Level 3?

Published: 29 April 2022

The HEPI paper, sponsored by Pearson, a BTEC awarding body, is made up of a set of essays by education experts exploring the future of Level 3 qualifications in England. They put the case for retaining  BTEC qualifications some of which are projected to be withdrawn by the government in favour of its newly launched T Levels, which were a key recommendation of the 2016 Sainsbury Review of technical education.

The full report can be found here.

At-a glance:

  • 250,000 teenagers take BTECs or other Applied General qualifications, each year – almost a third of the 16-18 cohort. The qualifications provide a general vocational alternative to A-levels that can be combined with A-levels and which map sectors rather than occupations. T levels, two-year qualifications worth three A Levels, are specifically mapped to the apprenticeship occupational standards, clearly flag specific job titles and job roles, and cannot be combined with A-levels (p13)
  • Employers understand and value BTECs. Colleges are keen to deliver them. Universities increasingly recognise them (p13)
  • Of the students completing one or more BTEC Level 3 qualifications as part of a two-year study programme, about 60 per cent progress to HE, with the rest progressing to Level 4 or 5 HNC / HNDs, apprenticeships and employment.  Key sectors that graduating BTEC students progress to include Nursing, Allied Health, Social Work and Teacher Training, where approximately one-in-five enter with a BTEC (p16)
  • Research indicates that more than 80 per cent of BTEC students progressed to their second year of HE, and that more than 60 per cent gained a degree at 2:1 or above. BTEC students have a slightly higher first year dropout rate than A-level students (p20)
  • It is unclear at this stage which BTECs will survive. Ministers initially gave the impression that few would remain. However Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, told the Lords this month that “significantly less than half” would have their funding removed. The Department for Education consultation in 2021 estimated that 54 per cent of Education and Skills Funding Agency-funded qualifications would be withdrawn, affecting an estimated 43 per cent of  16-19 non-A-level enrolments (p15)
  • Many commentators are concerned about the impact on widening participation of the removal of some BTECs and warn it could undermine the levelling up agenda. The DfE’s own Impact Assessment indicates that fewer students are likely to achieve Level 3 because of the reforms. It also indicates the policy will disproportionately impact students from disadvantaged background, those with Asian heritage and special education needs students. Just over a quarter of young people from POLAR quintile 1 entering HE has studied BTECs, as have about a third of Black HE students. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are three times more likely to hold only BTEC qualifications than those from more advantaged background  (p19, p25, p30)
  • While T Levels might suit those who are clear about the industry they want to work in, many students have not made that decision at 16. The under-informed choice of a specialist pathway could lead to substantial dropping out and inappropriate learning for future work and education. Maintaining a third route for more general vocational qualifications would support a wide range of skills sought after by employers, while also keeping the route open to HE (p34)
  • John Cope, Executive Director of UCAS, points out that one of the much-touted strengths of T Levels will be the 45 day industry placement. The supply of placements and engagement from employers will “need to be enormous” he warns; rural and economically depressed areas often do not have the breadth of opportunities or a large number of employers which could result in providers of T Levels struggling to offer placements in many subjects (p27)
  • A survey of more than 70 HEIs by NEON canvassing views on T Levels found that their intensive nature made outreach to these young people potentially more difficult, while their specialist nature could narrow the range of HE courses open to them. Early indications seem to show that colleges offering T Levels are targeting them towards relatively higher achieving students, who would ordinarily have done A-level, suggesting they will leave a paucity of routes for displaced BTEC students (p40)
  • Steve Wallis, executive director of quality at NCG, which runs seven FE college across England, said that while the group was preparing to offer T levels from 2023, the narrowing down of student choice could risk excluding learners and that places could be as limited as those on apprenticeships (p52)
  • Out of around 44,000 entrants each year to Engineering and Technology degrees in the UK, around one in eight holds one or more BTEC qualifications. Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Engineering Professors Council, questions whether sufficient employers will be prepared to offer T Level work placements when there is little immediate benefit, especially when compared to investing in apprenticeships. He also points out that BTECs can be delivered anywhere, but unless there are willing employers within a bus journey’s distance, colleges will not be able to offer a T Level in that subject.

Implications for governance:

The HEPI report provides governors with a useful summary and review of the issues arising out of proposed reforms of vocational Level 3 qualifications, such as BTECs, which have increased in popularity and are part of the suite of qualifications that are accepted for university entry across much of the sector.

At some universities, students with BTEC or other Applied General Qualifications, make up a substantial proportion of the intake, particularly widening participation cohorts.

While universities are still in the dark about exactly which BTECs and other vocational qualifications could be withdrawn, defunding of some of these courses would have implications for admissions and, by implication, university finances.

The vocational reforms could impact access and participation targets and plans, given the clear role that BTECs are playing in widening access. According to a 2018 HEPI report, much of the increases in HE participation of students from the lowest participation neighbourhoods since 2008 can be accounted for by the increase in the number of students holding BTECs either exclusively, or in combination with, A-Levels.

At this stage, the question is whether T Levels can provide a similar pipeline of young people to higher education. Its occupational mapping means it is regarded as primarily a route to employment and as the essays in the HEPI paper point out, this specificity is likely to reduce students’ higher education options.

The Department of Education has produced a list of 125 universities and HE in FE institutions that have confirmed that they will consider T Levels for entry onto at least one of their courses. The list is not exhaustive, according to the DfE and more will be added. Rather unhelpfully for the young people who might consult it, no indication is given as to which specific T Levels each institution will accept.

Some 88 on the list are universities (out of a total of 140 in the UK), including 10 Russell Group members. An FE Week piece said some universities had yet to decide whether or which T levels to accept. The first T Level students – who are studying either digital, construction or education and childcare – finish their two-year courses this term and will be planning their next steps. 

Some universities will wait until T Levels are rolled out further before determining whether students are academically able to cope with degree level study. Universities UK said it expects to see T Level acceptance increase within the sector as the number of subject areas expands.

As the HEPI paper points out, their expansion and success depends very heavily on widespread employer buy-in. Research suggests this is yet to be forthcoming. An Institute of Directors (IOD) survey of 300 members revealed that only 14 per cent were offering T level work placements, prompting the IOD to also call for the DfE to delay its BTEC defunding plan.

NEON’s 2021 report, Will abolishing BTECs mean reversing widening access to higher education?, which was highlighted in the HEPI paper, found that the overwhelming majority of HE members thought it would have a hugely negative impact, with more than one describing it as ‘devastating’.

Governors may wish to consider how their own institution could be impacted by the changes, including how much defunding of BTECs could affect recruitment and retention of students, and to what extent their institution is ready to accept entrants holding T levels. Institutions already offering, or that are about to offer, degree apprenticeships will need to decide how routes onto those programmes, as well as traditional degrees, may be affected.

Access the report

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