Confused and frustrated: Most universities reject first cohort of T Level students

DfE urges transparency amid looming UCAS deadline

DfE urges transparency amid looming UCAS deadline

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Less than half of all UK universities have confirmed they will accept T Levels for entry this year – with most Russell Group members turning their backs on the new technical qualifications.

An FE Week investigation has also found many universities still yet to decide whether to accept T Levels despite there being less than two weeks before the UCAS deadline for 2022 admissions.

The first T Level students – who study either digital, construction or education and childcare – began their two-year course in September 2020 and will be deciding their next steps now. 

While T Levels were designed so that students can enter work straight after completing their course, ministers have repeatedly made clear that the courses are still a viable entry route into university.

One parent of a T Level student who spoke to FE Week slammed the “disconnect” between the government and universities after spending months scrambling to find higher education institutions that might accept her son, with no clear way of identifying them.

The Department for Education said universities are independent of government and it is for them to set entry requirements, but urged them to offer prospective students “transparent information about their entry requirements” as soon as possible.

DfE finally publishes list of unis that will accept T Levels

On December 17 – the last day of term for most colleges – the DfE published a list of higher education institutions that had confirmed T Levels were suitable for at least one of their courses. 

Eighty were listed, of which 66 were traditional universities. There are 140 universities in the UK, meaning just 47 per cent currently accept students who have studied T Levels.

The new technical qualifications are equivalent to three A-levels and have UCAS tariff points allocated to them.

Ten of the 24 universities in the elite Russell Group are so far not accepting T Levels.

The University of Oxford told FE Week that T Levels alone “are unlikely to satisfy the requirements for entry, as they are technical qualifications, while all degree courses at Oxford are highly academic”. Cambridge University said the three initial T Level subjects “would not be a natural fit” with any of their degrees.

Some universities, such as Imperial College London, said they will wait until T Levels are rolled out further before determining whether students studying them are academically able to cope with their courses.

Others, including the likes of Leicester and Loughborough, told FE Week they have still not decided whether to consider T Levels as entry criteria.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think tank, said universities legally have autonomy over who they admit but pressed that it is vital that there is clarity about how they treat applicants. “Where universities are already clear that T Levels are unlikely to provide effective preparation for a specific course, they should make this really clear,” he said. “Otherwise, disadvantaged students in particular are likely to continue lagging behind middle-class students when it comes to entering highly selective institutions.”

Universities UK, which represents the country’s 140 universities, said it expects to see T Level acceptance increase within the sector as the number of subject areas expands “to give learners the opportunities and flexibility they deserve”.

The DfE’s list doesn’t even include details of which courses T Levels are accepted as entry criteria. Instead, it encourages students to “look at UCAS and at their preferred higher education provider’s website for more information on entry requirements”.

‘I’ve been really struggling to get a clear answer’

Annie Dorrington’s son Niall is in his second year of digital, design production and development T Level and she began helping him search for university opportunities at the start of the 2021 autumn term.

She said it was a confusing and frustrating time as most universities failed to advertise whether or not they accepted T Levels as entry criteria, while others had still not made up their mind.

Most shocking to Dorrington was that some universities said they would only accept her son if he also had an A-level in maths, despite the T Level effectively being a nine-to-five course.

She criticised the government for not publishing a list of universities that would accept T Levels sooner, explaining that it was released after the timeframe for university open days. “It seems to me that the DfE thought it was enough to give T Levels UCAS points and leave it at that,” she told FE Week.

“I work at a university and know my way around the admissions process but even I’ve been really struggling to get a clear answer in most cases.”

Dorrington, who described the T Level course as “fantastic”, said she knew from the get-go that there would be some universities who would not be interested in students with T Levels but did not expect the process to be so difficult: “I was expecting there to be a list of universities accepting T Levels much earlier. The college didn’t have that, nor did the government.”

Around 1,300 students studied the first three T Levels in 2020 and a further 5,450 signed up in 2021, with a total of ten subjects now on offer at over 100 colleges and schools.

A DfE spokesperson said the government expects the number of universities offering T Levels “to grow in the coming weeks”.



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3 Comments

  1. Andy Forbes

    A Levels historically were designed and controlled by the university sector to meet their needs; T Levels are not, and with demand for HE places strong, there is little or no pressure on universities to amend their entry requirements. But are T Levels simply an alternative route to Higher Education? If so, they join a crowded landscape of A Levels and BTECs and I suspect will take years to establish themselves – as BTECS did.

    • Phil Hatton

      Yes as you say Andy this is history repeating itself. In the early 90s we did a lot of work with the universities that our learners wanted to go to so that they eventually preferred BTEC qualifications to A levels in areas such as science, as undergraduates were better prepared for research and assignment writing. This was largely undone when government tried to scrap BTECs for GNVQs, and later abandon the diploma experiment that was successful in getting females into engineering but less so in other areas. Government seem to go for all or nothing with their experiments. I suppose the question to answer about T levels is, despite the good intentions, will they become established and a first choice for parents and learners, or fall by the wayside like GNVQs and diplomas have in the past?

  2. Dan Jones

    The debate about T levels and HE is purely of the DfEs making. T levels were designed to tackle skills shortages and actually choke off the ever growing numbers in HE. Applied Generals opened up HE to more diverse group of students and occupations. T levels simply aren’t designed for HE, they are too narrow and occupationally specific. To make them a viable choice and acceptable to parents a panicked DfE suddenly went down the route of ascribing UCAS points without asking universities or even asking universities to help design them. So the response from HE is no surprise and lets be honest DfE will be thankful. You don’t see them demanding universities let T level students because they’re independent organisations, how very convenient.