Progression from vocational to Higher Education

Pallavi Amitava Banerjee, University of Exeter


In addition to HE admissions and progression data, the exploratory phase of the project also considered demographics and destination data shared by the Further education (FE) colleges.

We asked for the full post-16 cohort by prior attainment, qualification routes, the key variables of background indicators such as gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status (SES). We also asked for destinations of students by qualification, looking at the choice of institution and programme, or employment routes. The type of data provided by each FE college varied from the other.

The purpose of this analysis was to explore whether these students come from a similar background. The main research questions addressed were ‘What proportion of BTEC students’ progress to higher education and have these proportion changed over the years?’

In this blog, I take the example of one FE college which had 260 level 3 students during the academic years 2013-16. 19% of students had reported disability either as difficulty or health problem. The largest ethnic group was white (37%) and the smallest ethnic group was of Chinese students (0.4%). 30% of all entrants were females and 70% were males. Aggregated institutional level data for 16-18-year olds filtered on the organisation’s information management system showed the total number of all students eligible for free school meals was 15.4% (40 out of 260 students). All students studied for a certificate (1.5%) or diploma (98.5%).

Some sixth form colleges had A-level and BTEC students. We looked at the progression rates of BTEC entrants to universities across the years and estimated the proportion in relation to students with A-level qualifications. The highest proportion of those who were offered a place at University had A levels. Relatively fewer BTEC students were offered a place by higher education providers.

In one of the FE colleges, across the three academic years 2013-2016 most BTEC students (88%) were placed at a higher education institution to study for an undergraduate degree. Relatively fewer students (12%) were seeking employment elsewhere or took a gap year. A smaller percentage of students considered other destinations for which information was not available.

It is interesting to note that despite being motivated to pursue an undergraduate degree the highest proportion of those who fail their end of first-year examinations at partner Universities have a BTEC prior qualification (see section 1 of HE statistical report or blog).

BTEC students do progress to HE. When it was possible to track the destinations of leavers we saw students with BTEC only qualifications were less likely to be offered a place by highly selective universities such as those from the Russell group. In some institutions, it was possible to check year-wise entry of BTEC students to University.

The inconsistencies in the way data are recorded and held makes analysis very challenging. If data sharing protocols are more accessible and institutions maintain consistent records it will be much easier to conduct a robust analysis of these datasets.

FE colleges often use self-recorded measures of attainment which are calculated by automated systems such as G score, average GCSE score. These are difficult to match when analysing aggregated data. Some colleges use more standard deprivation indicators such as the Index of multiple deprivation (IMD), eligibility for free school meals (FSM) or the disadvantage uplift factor. The use of reliable and valid measures should be encouraged across all colleges.

Mathematics Support Interventions

Carol Robinson, Loughborough University


Over the last six months, colleagues at Exeter, Birmingham and Loughborough Universities have been implementing the mathematics support interventions.

This is in response to findings from Phase 1 of the project which established an issue with the mathematical skills preparedness and mathematical confidence of BTEC students, and other students, who have not studied mathematics post-16 when undertaking quantitative first year modules at university.

The type of additional support being offered at each of the three universities differs and has been created in response to particular local needs and resources. A brief outline of each of the three strands of the intervention follows. First year students who have not studied mathematics post-16, are strongly encouraged to avail themselves of the support.


University of Exeter Business School

Alison Truelove, Graham Perkins and Marwa Tourky are leading this work. Additional mathematics support includes: Maths and Stats helpdesk (staffed by PhD students); a series of regular workshops on key topics such as algebra, differentiation, hypothesis testing and practical statistics (using SPSS); links to key high quality online resources, e.g. mathcentre and statstutor.


Birmingham Business School

Rob Fleming leads this work and the emphasis is on targeted online support. Students who have struggled with maths/stats in the first semester are encouraged to undertake supplementary work using the online learning platform MyMaths. Direct links are provided by Rob to relevant material, which includes a range of ready-made lessons and online tasks. Tracking of student progress is an additional asset.


Loughborough University School of Business and Economics

Keith Pond leads this work. One important feature is the teaching of first year quantitative skills modules in two groups – one for those who have studied mathematics post-16 and one for those who have not. Students are also actively encouraged to make use of the award-winning Mathematics Learning Support Centre. As at Exeter, links are provided on the VLE to relevant online resources.


Next Steps

Over the last few weeks we have been undertaking a detailed evaluation of the maths support interventions and using this to inform our approaches for Semester 1, 18/19. Updates to appear in a future blog!

Supporting student success in Higher Education

Rebecca Morris, University of Birmingham

When university students underperform or drop out, a typical response is to question whether the individuals or groups who are struggling have had enough support with their studies. Are there systems in place to help the students who need it? And are these systems available and accessible to all?

One of the key findings to emerge from the interviews we undertook with HE students was how aware they were of the support on offer at university. They knew that they had a personal tutor who they could talk to and that lecturers offered office hours and drop-in sessions. They also knew that there are services to help with a range of academic practice skills as well as social and welfare issues.

But frequently those who had reported having challenges during their first year told us that they did not access this support. Some expressed regret at this, believing that if they had used the help on offer, their end of year performance may have been better. This finding is important as it prompts us to ask why students choose not to utilise this support.

The students we talked to often struggled to articulate clearly what had prevented them from accessing support, whether that be meetings with lecturers or tutors, attending sessions run to improve academic literacy or numeracy, or participating in mentoring schemes. What did emerge though was a sense of a stigma attached to active engagement with support opportunities at university, a sense of embarrassment at having to ask for help. Some also indicated that a lack of confidence prevented them from seeking help when they needed it, echoing the views of some HE lecturers too.

Crucially, if we believe that the support on offer to students is of value, these findings encourage us to think about how universities can develop and improve their existing systems to ensure that those who most need it actually access it. Might there even be a need for universities to compel engagement with support for groups we know struggle with this?

These findings have been influential in informing the interventions designed as part of the second phase of this project. One example includes the implementation of a more rigorous personal tutoring system, including additional meetings for students, increased guidance for tutors and new methods for monitoring engagement. Another intervention involves the creation of an online module targeted at BTEC students, accessible from the pre-enrolment stage, and designed to offer support with a range of academic practice skills.

A key focus in developing these has been to consider how we can encourage increased student participation and engagement. Does making an aspect of support mandatory ensure that it happens? Do information or incentive strategies help to encourage support take-up?   And what does the targeting of support mean for inclusion and equality of opportunity?

These are just some of the challenges and tensions that are being negotiated through the current implementation and evaluation stages of this project. We’ll be following up soon with further blogs on how the interventions have worked in practice.

Mapping progression of BTEC students at the University


Pallavi Amitava Banerjee, University of Exeter

The HEPI report,  ‘Reaching the parts of society universities have missed: A manifesto for the new Director for Fair Access and Participation’ summarises a collection of action points for the new Office for Students on unlocking access to higher education.

Sharing a similar agenda, as discussed in our blog last month, the Transforming transitions project aims to investigate the experiences and outcomes of one such group of overlooked students – those who move from vocational to higher education (HE).

BTECs theorise on learning-by-doing. These qualifications are closely linked to work-based scenarios. Yet a growing number of students taking up these courses in Further education colleges are now moving on to higher education. Some universities have now started offering admissions to students with stand-alone BTECs or when held in combination with other qualifications such as A-levels and IB.

In order to address the particular needs and trajectories of this under- researched group we adopted an explore-design-implement-evaluate methodology. The exploratory phase was designed to develop the evidence base and identify whether BTEC students face any challenges during the FE-HE transition. During this phase three main strands of work were undertaken. A scoping review of literature, statistical analysis of data from FE colleges and Universities, and interviews with FE tutors and students.

This blog gives an overall view of the statistical analysis of admissions and progression data from Universities. We compared the progression rates of students with various qualifications to the second year of study in the subject areas of Business, Computer Science and Sports. Our findings show amongst students with various prior qualifications the highest proportion of those who failed their end of first year examination had a BTEC only qualification.

Overall BTEC students were more likely to apply and be offered a place in Sports and Exercise science and least likely to take up Computer science. Their patterns of progression matched the trends in entry to University. Thus most BTEC students in Sports passed their end of first year examination while relatively higher proportion of BTEC students failed in Computer Science.

Although the rate of progression for BTEC students from the first to the second year of study is lower than traditional entry students, the vast majority of BTEC students do succeed and are particularly more successful in Sports and Exercise science. The other important finding from the analysis was that most BTEC students qualified for one or more set of criteria used to flag deprivation indices. Thus it is very likely in addition to prior qualifications there are other factors involved which impact progression of BTEC students.

Thus while expectations or experiences of HE entrants may vary depending on their background, universities may not be sufficiently adaptive to a diverse group. One of the ways forward is to develop more inclusive pedagogies according to course structure and programme requirements to help students achieve better educational outcomes.

Stay tuned as the next blog offers an insight into students and tutors perceptions of this transition!