Media Release

Half of white working-class and black British students in England get into university with vocational qualifications such as BTECs

Half of white working-class and black British students in England get into university with vocational qualifications such as BTECs, new research has found.

The figures are revealed in new research from the Social Market Foundation, which is calling on ministers and the new university regulator, the Office for Students, to do more to help people who study BTECs and other vocational qualifications get access to higher education places.

While some universities have made real efforts to help students entering with BTECs to succeed, the SMF warned that vocational students – who tend to be from disadvantaged homes – are still at risk of “institutional snobbery” from other universities and others who do not recognise the value of their qualifications.

Vocational qualifications like the BTEC are increasingly popular. The number of school-age students studying for at least one BTEC tripled between 2006 and 2014 to 150,000.

SMF analysis of UCAS data looks at students accepted to higher education in 2016 who did a BTEC, an A level or a combination of the two. It shows that youngsters with BTECs are more likely than those who only have A levels to be from white working class or ethnic minority families. Vocational qualifications are also much more prevalent among students from the north of England than wealthier southern regions.

Going to university after studying for A levels is often regarded as the “traditional” route to higher education, but the SMF report, Vocation, Vocation, Vocation, shows that other qualifications are just as important for less privileged groups.

In the north-east of England and Yorkshire, 48 percent of those white working-class children who go on to university have at least one BTEC. In the north-east, 35 percent of white working-class students went to university solely on the basis of their BTECs.

Across England as a whole, 44 percent of white working-class children who make it to university have at least one BTEC.

BTECs are also vital for black British children progressing to higher education. 48 percent of black British students accepted to university have at least one BTEC qualification, and 37 per cent go to university with only BTEC qualifications.

The report calls on ministers to lead a “national conversation” aimed at raising the profile and status of technical and vocational qualifications, to end what institutional snobbery against those qualifications and the groups who are more likely to do them. This is particularly important given the introduction of T levels in 2020 and the risks for young people of a potential bifurcation of post-16 education. The report cites previous work by the SMF discussing the risks associated with students facing a binary choice between academic and technical education- particularly for those who would be suited to a combination of the two or studying through routes such as Applied Generals. This flexibility will be especially important in a future where more and more people will need a broad range of skills to move between multiple careers and re-skill across longer working lives, as discussed in the recent Future of Skills report by Pearson, NESTA and the Oxford Martin School.

SMF research also raises questions about whether some universities are doing enough to encourage and support BTEC students and others on the vocational path to apply for places and then to succeed as undergraduates.

Some universities, especially those who demand the highest A level grades for entry, do not even publish their entry requirements for students with vocational qualifications. That is a “barrier to entry” for the white working class and ethnic minority youngsters who are more likely to be on the vocational path, the SMF said.

The OFS should push universities to publish their vocational-qualification entry requirements alongside academic entry standards, the report says.

For those vocational students who do make it to higher education, more support is needed to ensure they get good degrees and do not drop out. Analysis of University Access Agreements by the SMF revealed that many universities have an absence of dedicated support for vocational-route students, and the think tank called for the new Office for Students to demand better support from higher education institutions.

James Kirkup, Director of the Social Market Foundation, said:

“Vocational qualifications like BTECs are the ladder that lets many people who don’t come from privileged homes get into university and enjoy opportunities their parents didn’t have.
“But for too long, politicians and the media alike have ignored and even belittled the vocational route, because politics and the media are dominated by people who took the traditional route of A-levels then university.
“Most of the people who run the country didn’t do BTECs, and they don’t come from the sort of background where BTECs matter most. The result is institutional snobbery against vocational qualifications and the people who have them.
“To make Britain’s world-class university system truly fair and open to all, HE leaders, ministers and Office for Students must work together to remove the barriers that keep many poor and ethnic minority people out of higher education. Our report shows how they can do that.”


Rod Bristow, President of Pearson in the UK, said:

“This excellent report from the SMF underlines the critical role that BTEC plays in helping a diverse range of young people make progress in their lives. It also reinforces Pearson’s view that career education pathways such as BTEC, which combine academic and practical skills, have a vital role to play in educating the next generation.

Any system which presents students with overly simplistic bi-furcated choice risks denying young people the chance to combine academic and technical learning. We need to ensure that as T levels are introduced, this new job-focused route sits alongside both career focussed (BTEC) and academic (A level) routes. It is also critical the education system keeps options open through a system of bridges and ladders, and allows people to move between routes as their knowledge, aspirations and the labour market change”.


University Alliance Chief Executive Maddalaine Ansell said:

“Vocational qualifications like BTECs have made an important contribution to expanding access to HE over the last decade. Complementing the A-level route by combining knowledge with real-world practical applications, their blend of academic and technical skills are also well suited to Britain’s future economic needs.
“Alliance universities are in the vanguard of efforts to recognize the value of these qualifications and to support students entering with vocational qualifications to succeed. Collaboration, learning from best practice and providing appropriate support at all stages of the student journey are key to this
“As T Levels are introduced as a new alternative qualification from 2020 onwards, learners need the confidence that all pathways offer progression routes – including to university and postgraduate study – and don’t end up being dead ends.”


Rt Hon Rob Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee and Conservative MP for Harlow, said:

“There is a cultural and institutional snobbery against vocational qualifications which is holding our country back. This must change and the SMF are right to identify how BTECs can help all young people, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to get into higher education. To all those who refer to further education as a ‘Cinderella sector’, remember that Cinderella became a princess and we must banish the ugly sisters of snobbery and intolerance. Education should be a ladder of opportunity for all young people and our higher education sector needs to up its game to recognise and support those who take the take the vocational route”.





The research was carried out independently and funded by Pearson in partnership with University Alliance.

The SMF analysed UCAS data covering students accepted to higher education in 2016 who did a BTEC, an A Level or a combination of the two. The data covers applicants from England.

The study’s analysis looks at the most common types of vocational and academic courses at Level 3, namely BTECs and A-Levels.
The majority of Level 3 vocational courses are BTECs. In 2015, some 77 percent of all vocational qualifications taken at Level 3 were BTECs, Similarly, not all academic-route students have A-levels, since alternatives such as the I-Bacc are available. But A-level holders are the most common.


Notes to editors

A copy of ‘Vocation, Vocation, Vocation: The role of vocational routes into higher education’ can be accessed here:

The report will be formally launched at a lunch event with Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, chair of the Education Select Committee, on Monday 29 January.


To arrange an interview with one of the reports’ authors, Kathryn Petrie, or with SMF Director James Kirkup, please contact SMF Head of External Affairs and Partnerships Laura Webb on 07502048969.


About the SMF

The Social Market Foundation (SMF) is a non-partisan think tank. We believe that fair markets, complemented by open public services, increase prosperity and help people to live well. We conduct research and run events looking at a wide range of economic and social policy areas, focusing on economic prosperity, public services and consumer markets. The SMF is resolutely independent, and the range of backgrounds and opinions among our staff, trustees and advisory board reflects this.


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