Information, advice and guidance

Will Russell Group universities accept T levels?

The Government is currently in the process of reforming level 3 qualifications in England and new T Level qualifications are seen as the centrepiece of these reforms. But what are T Levels? And will students who take them be able to progress to Russell Group universities?

The post-16 qualifications landscape

As things stand, there are a very large number of different qualifications for English 16 year olds to choose from. According to the Department for Education, there over 4,000 level 3 qualifications approved for funding for 16 to 19 year olds. However, a recent policy statement issued by the Government expresses a desire to streamline and simplify level 3 qualifications in England. Broadly speaking, the Government envisions all young people taking one of two routes at age 16 – either a technical route or an academic route. Whilst A levels will continue to be England’s flagship academic qualification, T Levels will assume the position of England’s flagship technical qualification. If we’re being completely honest with ourselves, we would probably accept that technical qualifications have not always enjoyed complete parity of esteem with academic qualifications. But there are encouraging signs that this could change - the Government are insistent that the idea that A Levels are the only option for the “brightest and best students” is in fact an outdated one. If we assume then that in the future some of the brightest and best will take T Levels, what destinations might they progress to afterwards?

What are T levels?

T levels are technical qualifications which combine classroom learning with “on the job” experience. Students will choose a single strand of study. An eclectic mix of different strands are available including accounting, human resources, legal and hair and beauty. Studying for a T level will require two years of full time study and in size terms they are equivalent to three A levels.

T levels are being made available gradually. The different subject strands are being rolled out in four waves. Not all schools and colleges will offer T levels straight away and schools and colleges rated either Good or Outstanding by Ofsted will deliver many courses first. The T level roll out has already begun, and it is expected to be complete by 2024.

Some of the new T level qualifications are inevitably going to overlap with existing qualifications which are available, such as Pearson’s recently-reformed BTEC qualifications. Where this happens, the Government plans to defund qualifications such as BTECs so that there is a single pathway available to all students. This is controversial, and some worry that this could restrict the degree of choice that students currently enjoy at age 16. Nonetheless, following a consultation with the sector the Government plans on pushing ahead with its planed reforms, which are likely to be solidified by the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill which will be put through Parliament in spring 2022.

Should students study for T levels if they want to go to university?

The T in T levels stands for “technical”. I draw attention to this only because this does in fact represent a shift in our vocabulary, given that qualifications such as BTECs have traditionally been described using the word “vocational”. We should remember that, on the whole, technical qualifications are primarily designed to lead to skilled employment. Some students who complete T level courses are likely to head straight in to the workplace. Others will want to supplement their T level studies with further on the job training such as an apprenticeship. But there will of course also be those who want to progress on to university too.

The Government is clear that university will be one possible destination for T level students. At the same time, they describe A levels as being “central to the study programmes of most students taking the academic pathway to progress to university”. For students who are sure that they want to go to university, choosing three A levels is still going to be a wise move. But students who are inclined towards a more technical route can take T levels in the knowledge that if they do decide to complete a degree they are still likely to have some options open to them.

Looking at what some individual universities have said so far about T levels, I get the impression that in the future university admissions teams will treat T levels in a similar way to which they currently treat vocational qualifications such as BTECs. A small number of the very most selective universities might not consider T levels to be suitable preparation for their degree programmes. However, many Russell Group universities are likely to consider T levels for certain courses though, like with BTECs, universities will probably want to see that there is a close connection between the subject matter which has been covered at T level and the subject matter of the degree programme.

Some universities have yet to make their position on T levels clear and have said they are waiting to take a closer look at programme specifications and assessment material. But these universities are likely to make a decision soon – the first cohort of T level students began their studies in September 2020, and some of these students could well be applying to university this autumn with a view to beginning their degrees in 2022.

Further reading

You can find out more information about how to support your students to make choices at age 16 by referring to our free resources strand - How do I help my students make the right choices for post-16 study?
Advancing Access has also produced a guide to Alternative routes into competitive universities.

Follow Paul on Twitter @Paul_Ed_Martin


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