Assignments, tests, research projects… To most students, these words are probably a horrifying reminder of all the coursework, examinations and seemingly endless revision we did over the two years of A-Level study that got us our offer to study at university. However, while 70% of UEA students are still applying with the standard three A Levels, the rise in applicants with alternative qualifications is growing and, surprisingly, these assessment descriptions in fact come from the Btec website. New statistics published by Ucas reveal that 26% of all students in England who gained a place on a degree course had at least one Btec, compared to 14% in 2008. The BTEC is the fastest growing route into higher education.
Over the last three application cycles, 15% of undergraduate students who have received places at UEA applied with either just Btec qualifications or with a combination of Btecs and A Levels. A second-year English student said the combination of the two courses allowed her “to spread out the work load” and stated that “the tenacity needed for the constant demands of the Btec better prepared me for the amount of study necessary at university”. She also discussed the Btec course’s further positive implications for university study, stating that it “provides you with a wide knowledge base that isn’t just based on what is needed for an exam”. Arguably, learning to “assimilate research into a structured and coherent piece of work” – without the pressure of a time-limited exam – is more similar to university-level study and coursework-based assessment, especially in arts and humanities subjects.
However, this increase may not be as straightforwardly positive as it seems. A quick look on Google indicates that “Btecs are rubbish” is the second suggested search term, and the qualification continues to be viewed as a softer option compared to the more academic-seeming A Levels.
But students’ perceptions of the quality of Btec courses seems to be pretty positive. A first-year UEA student described the qualification as “more useful than A Levels as I was looking for quotes myself and creating my own arguments”. Despite feeling “much less prepared” for university study, a second-year student said that if she could go back in time and do A Levels instead she wouldn’t, instead describing the choice as “tricky”.
UEA’s head of admissions, Alix Delaney, spoke to Concrete about the rise in Btec-based applications. She talked at length about the positive implications of BTECs for increasing engagement and diversity among applicants, stating that young people from disadvantaged communities were 10% more likely to enter higher education in 2014 than a year earlier. However, from an admissions perspective, while “UEA – like most universities – treats Btec applications in exactly the same way as A-Levels, we do have to be careful about certain things”. She explained that for specific courses, for example: engineering, which contains a lot of maths content, “the admissions office and the course director need to ensure that students who have taken the Btecs route have studied the modules we require before we can make an offer”.
Btecs are graded from pass to merit to distinction, with a D* grade providing further recognition for those who really excel. The course is looked positively on by employers and higher education providers. At a consultation with the examining body for Btecs Btecs, Pearson, universities discussed the virtues of the course, acknowledging that it provides students with transferable skills. Teamwork, confidence presenting and independently researching are all valuable assets in the job market and these skills are focused upon more in Btec study than at A Level, which concentrates on academic knowledge and exam preparation.
However, higher education institutions also raised concerns, pointing out that the so-called resit-culture of Btecs and the lack of external marking contributes to a lower level of factual knowledge and poorer maths and English skills in the students. Certain schools of study at UEA, including maths and the four-year chemistry course, are unable to accept Btecs at all, due to the student’s lack of essential factual knowledge for higher education courses.
Despite a certain Yik-Yak snobbery over “BTEC-Barry”, a 4% increase from 2011 means that in 2015, 15% of 18-year-old university applicants were enrolled on a Btec. As A Level numbers continue to remain static and the school leaving age population approaches a demographic dip expected to last around five years, it’s clear that Btecs are definitely here to stay.