Students who complete vocational qualifications prior to attending university are less likely to gain a 2:1 or above when they graduate, new research claims.

The research from academics at the University of Bath and commissioned by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) suggests qualifications like BTECs may not prepare students sufficiently enough for Higher Education (HE).

The report suggests that more support may be required for these students to address the problem but were quick to warn against labelling BTEC or similar qualifications as inferior to A-Levels.

Furthermore, the gap between degree classifications of BTEC and A-Level students was found to be greater at research-intensive universities where fewer vocational students actually gain entry.

The research also suggested that students with BTEC and vocational qualifications can be “more independent, self-motivated and capable than their counterparts with A-level qualifications” meaning that academic performance is not the only factor to consider.

A rise in applicants with vocational qualifications

A rapid increase in the number of students applying for university with BTEC qualifications has been noted by the university admissions body UCAS and provides an interesting context for the research.

The study used analysis from the Higher Education Statistics Agency which details thoughts from student focus groups and staff interviews from two different universities.

One of these was a teaching-focused university while the other was research-led, with noticeable differences noted between the two.

The authors – University of Bath Senior Lecturer in Higher Education Management Robin Shields and teaching fellow in education Alex Masardo – were then able to make the link between initial entry qualifications and overall degree outcomes.

They deemed that those with vocational qualifications were “less likely” to receive a first or 2:1 even when other background characteristics were considered.

Complex decisions with a number of influencing factors

It suggests those wishing to get the best level degrees should look to strike the balance between academic and vocational skills.

The two authors also suggest that the decision-process relating to picking qualifications is “complex, and not necessarily shaped by academic ability”.

The report notes that students bring with them a wide range of experiences and abilities to higher education, all of which “can be useful in helping them to succeed”.

Chief executive of the HEA Stephanie Marshall suggested that the research showcases the need for more support in universities for those with vocational qualifications.

She added that all pathways into higher education are valid but that the differences between them need to be understood to ensure that all students can benefit and achieve the best results.