BTEC students nearly twice as likely to drop out of university, report finds

Dropping out or repeating a year at university is rare, but students with BTECs are more likely to be affected.

Dropping out or repeating a year at university is rare, but students with BTECs are more likely to be affected.

Researchers have called for more tailored support for students with BTECs at university as a new study finds that they are almost twice as likely to drop out than undergraduates with A-levels. 

The study, published on Wednesday, also found that while 60 per cent of graduating BTEC students complete their university studies with a least a 2:1, they were typically 1.4 times less likely to do so than A-level students. 

Funded by education charity the Nuffield Foundation, the report, titled Educational choices at 16-19 and university outcomes looked at how students’ backgrounds, entry qualifications and entry subjects impacted on their educational experience at university. 

It is hoped, the Nuffield Foundation says, that a better understanding of the differences in the experiences of students with BTECs and A-levels will reduce educational disadvantages faced by students from lower socio-economic groups while at university. 

Researchers found that even after accounting for a “rich set” of demographic and prior attainment data, the likelihood of a BTEC student dropping out of university was 11.4 per cent, compared to six per cent for a similar A-level student. 

As well as looking at who dropped out of university, the study also looked at the entry qualifications of students who repeated their first year. While fewer students repeat than drop out (just 4.3 per cent probability overall, compared to eight per cent), researchers found a similar pattern. Student with BTECs were found to be 1.7 times more likely to repeat their first year than those with A-levels.

Despite BTECs being accepted university entry qualifications for some time, and millions of pounds having been invested in widening participation, researchers report that students with BTECs have a 24.9 per cent chance at achieving a degree classification below 2:1, compared to 17.7 per cent for A-level students. That gap is larger for students at the lower socio-economic levels.

Drop-out rates are low in the UK compared to other countries, as is the number of students who repeat their first year. The report also highlights that BTECs are a highly effective route to a degree for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Cohorts of students that researchers studied for this work pre-dated reformed BTECs. This means that it is not known what those performance gaps would look like for more recent generations of undergraduates, who would have experienced more external assessment as part of their BTEC.

Differences found in academic performance while at university, explored by using results of modules, are believed to be a big part of the explanation for the differences in the educational experience of university students arriving with BTECs compared to those with A-levels.

The report states “for the one university for which we have data on assessment method by first year module, we find that the performance gap between students with A-levels and BTECs is larger for modules assessed as least in part by written examination, compared with modules assessed by coursework only”.

Schools, colleges and universities should be more mindful of the differences between A-level and BTEC teaching and assessment when giving advice about post-18 options, the report argues. Further, tailoring courses to try and close these gaps, which disproportionately affect students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, rather than just focussing on recruiting them, should be integral to universities’ widening participation. 

The report’s findings provide some challenge to the government’s current approach to level 3 qualifications reform, the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) has said. James Kewin, deputy chief executive at the SFCA, told FE Week: “This welcome research from the Nuffield Foundation shows that the vast majority complete their studies and most graduate with at least a 2:1. The report provides further evidence that scrapping the majority of BTEC qualifications will stop many disadvantaged young people from progressing to university in the future – a key concern of the Protect Student Choice coalition.  

“If ministers are serious about making evidence-based decisions on the future of these qualifications, they should respond to the concerns set out in this report by pausing the defunding process until data on reformed BTECs is available and then look at the evidence in the round, rather than focusing exclusively on comparing outcomes between A-level and BTEC students.”

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Sacha Murmann

    On the whole, students who enter university with lower grades are at greater risk of dropping out. According to Voelkle and Sander (2008), entry grades affect dropout through an influence on university grades. Students with low entry grades perform poorly in their university exams leading them to either dropout voluntarily or being involuntarily withdrawn by the institution for not meeting the academic grades required for continuing with their studies.
    As lower GCSE entry requirements are required for BTEC entry compared to A level, surely we would expect to see higher drop out rates, rather than it being down to the type of Level 3 qualification achieved?

  2. It would be interesting to look at this data over time to see how this may have changed. It’s a long time since I taught on BTEC computer science programmes but ‘back in the day’, my students, who mainly progressed to University, typically came for a visit back to College at their first holiday and recounted that their first year was ‘easy’ and that they spent quite a bit of their time helping out the A Level students who hadn’t done anything like this before! OK, the IT world is a bit different now, but I do wonder whether this is a factor in the BTEC programmes or the degree programmes that they are progressing on to?