Our Catalyst project, Transforming Transitions, is putting the spotlight on this transition – working with a consortium of universities and further education colleges to look at the experiences of BTEC students across the school-university divide.

BTEC and widening participation

In terms of background characteristics, BTEC students are more likely to be from black or other ethnic minority groups, or to come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. They are also less likely to be as successful at university as those students from more advantaged backgrounds that have entered higher education with traditional A level qualifications.

These differences in student outcomes have been highlighted in previous research, including the HEFCE commissioned report on causes of differences in student outcomes and Rouncefield-Swales’ 2012 work on vocational progression to selecting universities.

To further understand why this is the case we are listening to the voices of students and hearing their testimonies of transition. We have interviewed two different cohorts – BTEC and A level students in their last year of post-16 education and BTEC and A level students in their first year at university. In this way, we have built up narratives of their learning and social worlds which may help explain their different outcomes at university.

Here we share what we have learned so far about the social and cultural challenges some BTEC students face when they join a high-tariff university.

But first, a word of caution. In drawing attention to some of these social differences, we run the risk of creating new stereotypes and treating the BTEC cohort as a homogenous group. BTEC students, like any other group of students, are diverse and include young people with differing backgrounds, attitudes and personalities. Therefore, our findings are true for some students, in some circumstances, some of the time.

Friendship groups

Forming supportive friendships at university is often a key factor in feeling that you fit in and have a friendship group that you can turn to. Indeed, many people forge lifelong friendships at university. For the BTEC students we spoke to, they note the very tight friendship groups which developed on their post-16 courses, and felt that the way BTEC courses were designed actively encouraged the formation of good relationships.

The transition into university courses where subject groups are typically much larger and where teaching includes lectures with large student numbers is therefore, not always easy. As one student said:

‘when there’s 300 people in a lecture theatre it’s quite difficult to kind of become close with peers.’

BTEC students appeared more likely to form single close friendship groups at university, often with others on their course, and sometimes with other BTEC students.

In contrast, students with A level entry qualifications appeared to form broader and wider friendship groups, with different friends in different groups. They were also more likely to join extra-curricular societies, and thus to establish larger and looser social networks.

Fitting in

There is little doubt that some BTEC students had more difficulties ‘fitting in’ at university, because they felt different from the majority. The dominant culture of ‘drinks and partying’ is not enjoyed by all, and university social life may not always recognise the practical realities of living at home or off campus. The timing of voluntary activities sometimes excludes those living at home:

‘I can’t really participate in sports because it’s early starts and that means I have to get up 4.00 in the morning, or something.’

For some, coming to university made them aware for the first time that they were working class and that others had enjoyed more privileged lives. One student had been surprised to find there were ‘a lot more middle class students’ which had made it ‘tough to adapt’. This heightened their sense of difference. They were particularly aware of financial privilege, which often contrasted with their own need to work to supplement their income.

Fitting in was sometimes made more difficult by a sense that other students and university staff ‘put them down’ because their entry qualification was not an A level. For example, one student said that:

‘people judge you and they’re, like, you’ve done a BTEC, you’re not capable enough to be here.’

Another student felt that the university valued students differently:

‘the person who got 3 A*s would be revered higher than the BTEC student, just because BTEC has got that whole stigma it is not as hard working and not as dedicated as A levels.’

Going forward

As the ‘What Works? Student Retention and Success programme’ report demonstrated, a strong sense of belonging in HE for all students is at the heart of successful student retention and outcomes.

The voices of the students represented in our interviews tell rich and different stories, and many of the BTEC students are enjoying both academic success and a happy social life. But their stories do also signal that universities need to think more about what it means to be inclusive.

How often do universities assume that their students are primarily from traditional middle class backgrounds? How do we challenge the non-inclusive attitudes of some staff and students?

Food for thought, perhaps – but also a positive reminder of just how much we can learn by really listening!