The study, commissioned by the Higher Education Academy (HEA), also shows that these students – who mostly hold BTECs – are highly capable, and possess qualities that can help them succeed at the highest levels in HE.

The authors from our School of Management and Department of Education, using a mixed methods approach, combine a quantitative analysis of data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) with qualitative data obtained from student focus groups and staff interviews at two UK universities; one of which is teaching-focussed and the other of which is research intensive.

Through an investigation of outcomes and support for students in the context of rising numbers of university applicants with either vocational qualifications, or a mix of vocational and academic qualifications, the results point to a need for greater awareness of the landscape of university entry qualifications.

New ways of supporting students

Professor Stephanie Marshall, Chief Executive, HEA, comments: “This research highlights that more needs to be done to support the learning of students with vocational qualifications while they are in higher education. The number of students choosing BTECs is rising steadily. Different pathways into HE prepare students in different ways. All are valid, but as a sector we must work to fully understand the differences. Support for those teaching students, through appropriate training, is one key way of supporting students.

“The research also shows that there is an ‘engrained hierarchy’ at a broader level about pre-entry qualifications and that success in higher education may rely on students’ being able to ‘decode and navigate these largely unwritten rules.’ Providing students with clear guidance and information so that they can make informed choices is important if they are to get the best out of their experience in HE.”

Dr Alex Masardo, of our Department of Education, explains: “A rise in the diversity of entry pathways to higher education makes it important that institutions ensure that all students are adequately supported. While this study provides evidence that students with vocational qualifications are less likely to receive a first or second-class degree than those coming through more traditional routes, it also reveals the importance of avoiding thinking about vocational qualifications as in some way inferior. Students bring a wide range of different experiences and learning abilities to their higher education studies, all of which can be useful in helping them to succeed.”

Dr Robin Shields, Senior Lecturer in the School of Management at the University of Bath, added: “This is the first study of its kind to provide a systematic analysis of how outcomes differ by qualification type with a full set of control variables. It provides clear evidence that appropriate regulation is needed when marketing qualifications to students.”

About the research

Changing patterns in vocational entry qualifications, student support and outcomes in undergraduate degree programmes used a mixed methods approach, comparing the degree results of students with vocational and more traditional qualifications, such as ‘A’ levels. It combined a quantitative analysis of data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) with qualitative data obtained from student focus groups and staff interviews at two universities, one teaching-focused and one research-intensive.

When controlling had been done for demographic factors including background and gender, the research found that students with vocational qualifications are less likely to get a First or a 2.1. While further research with a wider range of providers would confirm and develop the qualitative findings, those findings based on the analysis of large scale data support the conclusions reached.

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Read the Times Higher Education's study of the story BTEC students 'less likely to gain top degrees', suggests study.