Unintended Consequences: How Level 3 reform could damage progression to higher education, including for Nursing

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By Ria Bhatti, Head of Stakeholder Engagement 

Last term saw the exciting milestone of the first cohort of students enrol on the new T Level programmes in Digital and Construction pathways and in Childcare. Last term also marked the launch of the Department for Education’s (DfE) consultation reviewing which Level 3 qualifications (aside from A Levels and T Levels) should be funded in the longer term.

The proposals – as they currently stand – will redefine the Level 3 qualification landscape, significantly reducing the number of vocational qualifications available from 2023 and 2024. In turn, this will potentially impact on progression to higher education. BTEC qualifications have more than 35 years’ history of supporting students’ progression to higher education, which is why we were pleased to work with National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) on a joint publication, Guiding Principles to Inform the Successful Progression of BTEC Students into Higher Education, published last month. As this publication recognises, universities too have done a lot of work to support the transition of BTEC students to higher education in recent years and we are keen to support this further.

Despite this work and excellent practice and the recent reform programme which saw the introduction of external assessment and exams into BTEC and other vocational qualifications, further reform is being proposed. On the face of it, it looks positive that there is a recognition of the need for qualifications aside from A Levels and T Levels. Yet it is important we consider the detail of these proposals.

Example of impact on nursing

Let’s take a closer look at the potential impact of the consultation proposals for one occupational and degree area. In 2017, just over 21% of entrants to nursing degrees held a BTEC Level 3 National qualification, representing approximately one-in-five of Nursing degree entrants. Given that most Nursing degree holders do go into nursing as a career, this illustrates that BTEC alumni constitute a significant proportion of the nursing workforce.

Approximately 65% of these BTEC students in 2017 studied health and social care. With 16%, the next popular BTEC subject studied was applied science, which would potentially no longer be an option under these proposals, due to perceived overlap with A Levels. Yet the BTEC covers science topics not covered by the corresponding A Levels in science, featuring more practical skills assessment and a blended assessment model.

In 2017, most of these BTEC students entering Nursing did so with the BTEC as a stand-alone qualification (equivalent to three A Levels). This qualification would also potentially no longer exist under the current DfE proposals, due to perceived overlap with T Levels, despite a different purpose. This size of BTEC qualification in health and social care, featuring a double-weighted exam in Anatomy and Physiology (set and marked by the exam board), contains more content on human biology than the A Level in Biology. It is a great foundation for those interested in progressing to nursing, while keeping students’ progression options open.

Fortunately, the DfE proposals would still allow for a small qualification in health and social care to be taken alongside two A Levels. However, some of the other popular models of mixed curricula would potentially no longer exist, such as taking the BTEC Level 3 National Diploma in Health and Social Care (a two A Level equivalent) alongside an A Level in Biology, a popular combination for students committed to pursuing Nursing degrees, rather than studying three disparate subjects.

The cumulative effect of these proposals would therefore reduce the number of existing routes for entering a Nursing degree, at a time when we urgently need to be increasing the size of the nursing workforce.

Widening participation

Under these proposals, for the potentially smaller number of students able to progress to Nursing degrees with a mixed curriculum model (for example, one small BTEC alongside two A Levels), there is a risk that this student cohort would be less representative of the wider diverse student population. The DfE’s Impact Assessment highlights the risk that certain student groups may be more adversely impacted by these proposals than others.

When we compare the average student cohort profile, according to HESA data, of those following an A Level only route, versus those of studying a BTEC-only route for higher education entrants in 2017 (across all subject areas), we can start to see why. A greater proportion of those studying BTEC come from an ethnic minority background (such as Asian, 16.5%; and Black 13.7%) than those who studied purely A Levels (Asian, 12.3%; and Black 4.9%).

In that same year, approximately 16.7% of those following an A Level route came from the bottom four socio-economic groups (HESA), versus double that (31.6%) of those following a BTEC only route. This is evidence of the BTEC qualification’s inclusivity, which is more representative of the wider student population. If the number of BTEC and other vocational qualifications is reduced, this is likely to adversely impact some student groups more than others.

If we consider what this means for Nursing, there is a risk that fewer students from ethnic minority backgrounds or certain socio-economic groups will be able to progress into this degree area and therefore profession, leading to a workforce that is less representative of the wider population that it serves.

Wider workforce and economy

If we then multiply this impact of reduced accessibility to some of the other degree areas that BTEC students progress onto, including Allied Health, Social Work, Teaching, Engineering and Construction (to name but a few), the potential repercussions would be significant, leading to unintended consequences for the wider UK workforce, society and the economy.

If we want a diverse and high-performing workforce to meet the changing needs of our economy in these challenging times, we need a rich and diverse Level 3 curriculum that supports that.


This blog first appeared on HEPI.ac.uk

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