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.

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.

edge he report thumb

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.”

You may also be interested in these articles:

Sponsored Video

Register, Login or Login with your Social Media account:


Upcoming FE Events

Advertiser Skyscrapers

Newsroom Activity

FE News: The Future of Education News Channel had a status update on Twitter 2 hours 32 minutes ago

Matt’s the man for the job at Middlesbrough College Group: Middlesbrough College Group (@mbrocollege) has appointed…
View Original Tweet

Latest Education News

Further Education News

The FE News Channel gives you the latest education news and updates on emerging education strategies and the #FutureofEducation and the #FutureofWork.

Providing trustworthy and positive Further Education news and views since 2003, we are a digital news channel with a mixture of written word articles, podcasts and videos. Our specialisation is providing you with a mixture of the latest education news, our stance is always positive, sector building and sharing different perspectives and views from thought leaders, to provide you with a think tank of new ideas and solutions to bring the education sector together and come up with new innovative solutions and ideas.

FE News publish exclusive peer to peer thought leadership articles from our feature writers, as well as user generated content across our network of over 3000 Newsrooms, offering multiple sources of the latest education news across the Education and Employability sectors.

FE News also broadcast live events, podcasts with leading experts and thought leaders, webinars, video interviews and Further Education news bulletins so you receive the latest developments in Skills News and across the Apprenticeship, Further Education and Employability sectors.

Every week FE News has over 200 articles and new pieces of content per week. We are a news channel providing the latest Further Education News, giving insight from multiple sources on the latest education policy developments, latest strategies, through to our thought leaders who provide blue sky thinking strategy, best practice and innovation to help look into the future developments for education and the future of work.

In Jan 2021, FE News had over 173,000 unique visitors according to Google Analytics and over 200 new pieces of news content every week, from thought leadership articles, to the latest education news via written word, podcasts, video to press releases from across the sector, putting us in the top 2,000 websites in the UK.

We thought it would be helpful to explain how we tier our latest education news content and how you can get involved and understand how you can read the latest daily Further Education news and how we structure our FE Week of content:

Main Features

Our main features are exclusive and are thought leadership articles and blue sky thinking with experts writing peer to peer news articles about the future of education and the future of work. The focus is solution led thought leadership, sharing best practice, innovation and emerging strategy. These are often articles about the future of education and the future of work, they often then create future education news articles. We limit our main features to a maximum of 20 per week, as they are often about new concepts and new thought processes. Our main features are also exclusive articles responding to the latest education news, maybe an insight from an expert into a policy announcement or response to an education think tank report or a white paper.

FE Voices

FE Voices was originally set up as a section on FE News to give a voice back to the sector. As we now have over 3,000 newsrooms and contributors, FE Voices are usually thought leadership articles, they don’t necessarily have to be exclusive, but usually are, they are slightly shorter than Main Features. FE Voices can include more mixed media with the Further Education News articles, such as embedded podcasts and videos. Our sector response articles asking for different comments and opinions to education policy announcements or responding to a report of white paper are usually held in the FE Voices section. If we have a live podcast in an evening or a radio show such as SkillsWorldLive radio show, the next morning we place the FE podcast recording in the FE Voices section.

Sector News

In sector news we have a blend of content from Press Releases, education resources, reports, education research, white papers from a range of contributors. We have a lot of positive education news articles from colleges, awarding organisations and Apprenticeship Training Providers, press releases from DfE to Think Tanks giving the overview of a report, through to helpful resources to help you with delivering education strategies to your learners and students.


We have a range of education podcasts on FE News, from hour long full production FE podcasts such as SkillsWorldLive in conjunction with the Federation of Awarding Bodies, to weekly podcasts from experts and thought leaders, providing advice and guidance to leaders. FE News also record podcasts at conferences and events, giving you one on one podcasts with education and skills experts on the latest strategies and developments.

We have over 150 education podcasts on FE News, ranging from EdTech podcasts with experts discussing Education 4.0 and how technology is complimenting and transforming education, to podcasts with experts discussing education research, the future of work, how to develop skills systems for jobs of the future to interviews with the Apprenticeship and Skills Minister.

We record our own exclusive FE News podcasts, work in conjunction with sector partners such as FAB to create weekly podcasts and daily education podcasts, through to working with sector leaders creating exclusive education news podcasts.

Education Video Interviews

FE News have over 700 FE Video interviews and have been recording education video interviews with experts for over 12 years. These are usually vox pop video interviews with experts across education and work, discussing blue sky thinking ideas and views about the future of education and work.


FE News has a free events calendar to check out the latest conferences, webinars and events to keep up to date with the latest education news and strategies.

FE Newsrooms

The FE Newsroom is home to your content if you are a FE News contributor. It also help the audience develop relationship with either you as an individual or your organisation as they can click through and ‘box set’ consume all of your previous thought leadership articles, latest education news press releases, videos and education podcasts.

Do you want to contribute, share your ideas or vision or share a press release?

If you want to write a thought leadership article, share your ideas and vision for the future of education or the future of work, write a press release sharing the latest education news or contribute to a podcast, first of all you need to set up a FE Newsroom login (which is free): once the team have approved your newsroom (all content, newsrooms are all approved by a member of the FE News team- no robots are used in this process!), you can then start adding content (again all articles, videos and podcasts are all approved by the FE News editorial team before they go live on FE News). As all newsrooms and content are approved by the FE News team, there will be a slight delay on the team being able to review and approve content.

 RSS IconRSS Feed Selection Page