Overwhelmingly, when news reports or blogs like this one discuss UK students gaining admission to university, they talk about A Levels. Students applying to university via UCAS are lumped together as “A Level students”, and the decisions about who goes where are – according to most media outlets – based on “A Level results”.

But did you know that a significant minority of students in England and Wales reach university without ever having sat in an A Level classroom? The A Level is just one of several qualifications at Level 3 (the level normally studied by students aged 16-19) that the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) deems to be broadly equivalent. Many students gain admission to university by studying a qualification called a BTEC National (pronounced “Bee-Tech”), a career-focused programme that often combines academic learning with professional experience in the area in which the student eventually wants to work.

BTECs in the news

BTEC Nationals have been in the news recently because top universities have been accused of “snobbery” over BTEC qualifications. BTECs have nominal equivalency to A Levels. And yet, a number of elite universities, including Cambridge and some Russell Group institutions, explicitly refuse to accept students via the BTEC route. They refuse on the grounds that BTEC Nationals are vocational rather than academic qualifications, and don’t adequately prepare students for the academic rigours of a degree at a top-ranked university.

So Russell Group unis prefer academically-focused entry qualifications – what's the problem?

Traditionally, we would expect Russell Group institutions to give preference to those who’ve studied A Levels. When BTEC qualifications were first offered there was a far clearer divide between “vocational” and “academic” study – and BTECs were clearly intended as groundwork for disciplines in the former category, with A Levels targeted at the latter. But let’s take a look at a subject that’s always traditionally been considered a “vocational” one: nursing. Until very recently, nursing was the epitome of a “vocational” subject, with qualifications focusing on the practical application of skills and on-the-job training prioritised over classroom learning. But since 2013 all new nurses have been required to have degrees, meaning a traditionally “academic” route is now the only way into this profession.

Prospective applicants to nursing degrees now face a choice. They can undertake a BTEC National in nursing that offers focused preparation for their eventual career (and their degree!) including a work placement scheme, but that might restrict the range of elite universities to which they can apply. Or they can take a set of A levels that offer far less in the way of directly relevant training but are likely to be viewed more favourably by top universities.

This in itself would be worrying enough, but there’s also a considerable body of evidence that the refusal of many top universities to consider BTEC students disproportionately impacts ethnic minority students and those from underprivileged backgrounds. The Guardian reports that 48% of black students accepted onto university degrees have studied at least one BTEC qualification. And 37% have taken a BTEC-only route into Higher Education, having studied no A Levels or AS Levels at all. It’s a similar story for white working-class students nationwide, of whom 44% of those accepted to university have taken a BTEC qualification.

A disappearing line

These figures paint a bleak picture of a two-tier education system, in which entry to elite universities is reserved for those who take the traditionally “academic” A Level route into Higher Education, with universities slow to react to the changing role of a degree in the workplace. The increasing expectation – or even requirement – of degree qualifications in traditionally vocational occupations represents not just an “academicisation” of those occupations, but a fundamental blurring of the lines between the vocational and the academic. A corresponding “vocationalisation” of the traditionally academic degree is an inevitable result of this. Whether that’s desirable or not is a matter for debate, but penalising those students who access Higher Education via workplace-focused, experience-based qualifications is a discriminatory and ineffective way to hold back the tide.