Alice Barnard, Chief Executive of Edge

In Camilla Turner’s Telegraph article last week, Nick Hillman, HEPI Director is quoted: "It is a good thing that these people [BTEC students] are going into higher education. But they do have clearly a slightly different background to people who have done A-levels."

I know HEPI consistently make the case for widening access to HE – and of course accounting for context and editing by the Telegraph’s sub - it nevertheless seems to me that this kind of rhetorical language, only serves to reinforce the perceived disparity in status and value between academic and so-called vocational qualifications. It perpetuates the unhelpfully simplistic stereotype that the clever kids take A levels while ‘these people’ from a ‘slightly different background’, study BTECs or similar.

Data shows an increase in students taking BTECs and the proportion of university entrants who have achieved one. I would suggest that this is because students increasingly appreciate that they, and other similar vocational qualifications, offer the opportunity to put theory into practice. The smart students know that it is experience and skills that will put them at the top of the shortlist when they move into the world of work, not A level grades.

Mind the skills gap

As Edge’s most recent report showed, the UK’s skills shortage continues to grow and the challenges of recruiting is costing our businesses dear – more than £1.7bn according to Open University research. Yet, as HEPI has pointed out previously, more young people go to university than ever.

Surely this suggests a disconnect between what young people learn in higher education and what employers are looking for?

Companies and organisations in sectors from hospitality to construction to digital, say they are looking for candidates with 21st century skills – creativity, problem-solving, team working, resilience, adaptability.

Elsewhere in the article, Nick Hillman suggests providing better support for BTEC students, such as extra essay writing classes to bring them up to speed.

I haven’t met an employer yet who has said that the ability to write an essay is top of their recruitment criteria.

Perhaps Universities should consider how they need to change as much as how they need to change their students to adapt to traditional teaching methods.

Rise of the BTEC

The number of university applicants with BTECs has been increasing in recent cycles, by 6,300 (18 per cent proportionally) from 2014, and by 13,970 (50 per cent proportionally) since 2011, according to UCAS data.

I suggest that this is because universities are beginning to recognise that if they are to compete in the HE marketplace, they need to be more diverse and provide a more employment-focused offer. Inevitably this will affect their intake; the whole application process is predicated on universities offering places to the candidates who are going to thrive.

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The Social Market Foundation reports that between 2008 and 2015, the number of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds with A-levels entering university increased by just 19%. For students with BTECs that figure rose to 116%. Surely this suggests that BTECs are an effective learning mechanism for student progression whether that’s into HE, an apprenticeship or into work?

The pretext that vocational learning provides youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds with a leg-up the ladder of opportunity, merely maintains an artificial educational divide.

BTECs – or any other ‘vocational’ qualification - can stand on their own merits. I met a student at a London UTC whose parents were both doctors, one a researcher at a top London university; clearly an academic, well-educated and high achieving family.

He was intelligent, had thrived at school and wanted to be an engineer. So he had chosen to study maths and physics A level and opted to go to the UTC because he was able to do a BTEC in engineering there.

What he valued was the opportunity to practically apply his learning. He chose a BTEC because it was the best option, not because he wasn’t able to get good grades at A level or came from ‘a slightly different background’.

Skills for the future

But don’t just take my word for it. There is plenty of evidence of the advantages of having a BTEC in your qualification portfolio. Level 3 BTECs can boost your lifetime earnings by up to £92,000, perhaps because BTEC students are better equipped with the skills employers need.

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Last year Edge published Our Plan for Higher Education. We called for greater diversity and flexibility in the courses and learning options available, more focus on employment so students graduate equipped to enter the workplace and better value for money.

Our universities have a noble and valuable heritage, but we can’t run a 21st century economy solely based on a 13th century education system.

Our digital, increasingly automated age demands creativity, intuition and a skillset which comes with the application of knowledge and experience, not writing essays to an academic formula.

It is not ‘these people’ from ‘slightly different backgrounds’ who are behind the curve, but our HE system.

Alice Barnard, Chief Executive of Edge

Copyright © 2018 FE News

Editor's Note: “For the avoidance of doubt," explains Nick Hillman, "I think BTECs can provide a good preparation for higher education and I think universities should do all they can to support BTEC students once they are in.”

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