Alternative routes

Can students studying vocational qualifications progress to competitive universities?

Even in 2021, there are still myths surrounding post-16 vocational qualifications and the possibility for students to progress from these qualifications onto higher education (HE). Although some of the highly-selective universities do not accept vocational qualifications as standard, in many cases they will consider these qualifications on a case by case basis. That being said, the majority of universities in the UK, including a majority of Russell Group universities, do accept vocational qualifications in their requirements.

It is therefore a myth that students studying vocational qualifications, such as BTECs or the new T-Levels, will not be able to study at university. Although the full details of T-Level entry requirements for university courses are yet to be determined, most universities are likely to treat them in a similar way to BTECs. Still, there is much to understand about this new qualification. Currently, many universities in the UK administer entry requirements based on UCAS points, where there is no comparison between qualification type, only the amount of points qualifications are worth. However, there are still concerns from teachers and advisors as to whether their vocational students will be able to progress onto the most competitive and highly-selective universities in the UK.

In reality, there is little need to worry. Many competitive universities, such as those in the Russell Group, will accept students studying vocational qualifications for some, if not all, of their courses. I cannot claim to know the ins and outs of entry requirements for every course and every institution, but I can assure you that many of these universities are actively encouraging more applications from students studying vocational courses. That’s because these institutions acknowledge the value of these qualifications, just as much as other post-16 qualifications such as A-Levels. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly common for BTECs to be studied alongside other qualifications like A-Levels and as such, universities are accustomed to receiving applications from students with a mix of qualifications. 

An example of BTEC entry requirements

Let’s take a popular degree subject, Psychology, as an example. From a quick course search, I found several BSc Psychology courses which accept vocational qualifications. Primarily, I looked at the BTEC requirements in my search, and in addition to my own institution of the University of York, I also discovered similar institutions such as Durham, Leeds, Lancaster, Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham who all also accept a BTEC National Extended Diploma for this subject. For many of these courses, the entry requirements are DDD (with D being ‘Distinction’) or above, which is equivalent to the A-Level requirements of around AAA. Some courses specify the BTEC qualification should be in a science subject, but others don’t. From this quick search, it is clear to see that some of the highly-selective universities would gladly accept students from a vocational course. 

There may be some courses which are currently unable to accept vocational qualifications. However, several universities offer students the opportunity to complete a Foundation or Gateway Year in order to access a particular undergraduate degree course. For example, at the Hull York Medical School, our current entry requirements for our Medicine course require students to hold an A-Level in both Biology and Chemistry. Let’s imagine that a student studying a BTEC in Applied Science wants to study Medicine. The student could choose to apply for a Gateway course with us, which covers the necessary core modules to prepare and equip students for the undergraduate Medicine course. Although this adds an additional year onto a student’s studies, it can enable them to reach their desired degree or career pathway and can therefore be a great option. Of course, with any entry requirements, there is variety in whether or not universities offer Foundation or Gateway courses, and they are not always available for all subjects. Still, this option is worth considering, as it could open up doors for students who may otherwise fear they are unable to access a particular course or university due to their qualification set.

The value of the vocational

Many HE providers have remarked that for some undergraduate degree programs, vocational qualifications such as BTECs prepare students as well as, if not better than, non-vocational study such as A-Levels. The skillset developed by students studying vocational subjects is wide-ranging. One of these benefits can be practical, hands-on experiences which give students a wealth of knowledge and experience they can apply to their later studies. Contrary to common misconception, the BTEC curriculum can be very relevant to the undergraduate curriculum in terms of content, and the often modular approach to learning in these courses is easily transferable into the undergraduate learning space. 

Another key attribute of these students is their ability to work independently on learning and assessments, such as coursework. This format of assessment is incredibly common in many UK universities, and therefore draws upon the strengths of vocational learners.

Number crunching

So, now we have established that vocational learners can study at university, how many students do? Well, according to Pearson, who are the UK’s largest awarding organisation, each year around 100,000 students enter higher education with a BTEC National. That equates to approximately 1 in 4 university students in the UK. 

What’s more, this has been steadily increasing over time, as more and more students with vocational qualifications go to university. In 2008, only 13% of students with a BTEC progressed to higher education, rising to over 24% by 2015. 

Of these students, around two-thirds enter higher education having taken a BTEC qualification on its own. Meanwhile, the other one-third take BTEC qualifications alongside A-Levels. 

Take home messages...

> A large majority of UK universities accept students studying vocational qualifications, including some of the most selective universities 
> 1 in 4 students studying at a UK university hold a BTEC qualification
> Students studying vocational qualifications should be encouraged to consider higher education as a viable option

Further reading...

To support your students, you may wish to share with them this “Can you get into university if you’re studying BTECs?” student-friendly article published by TheUniGuide.

Students can use the “What Uni” website to quickly and easily search for higher education courses which may interest them, and compare their entry requirements.

Finally, Advancing Access has a resource on the subject of Alternative routes into competitive universities.



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