Getting into university - what works best

Getting into university - what works best?

Following a lively debate at our recent event, #HEcam, our researcher, Nadir, widens the conversation beyond A Levels, explaining how different types and combinations of qualifications are used by young people to gain access to higher education.

Considering some of the points raised during the Q&A session of Richard Partington’s recent seminar, with many delegates requesting more information on qualifications other than A Levels, I thought it pertinent to share this piece of research published in the last issue of Research Matters (pp. 13-21) titled: Progressing to Higher Education in the UK: The effect of prior learning on institution and field of study by Carmen Vidal Rodeiro, Tom Sutch and myself. 

The article focuses on how different types and combinations of qualifications are used by young people to gain access to higher education. In particular, we considered the cohort of full-time, first year undergraduates aged 17–19, domiciled in England, studying at UK universities in the 2011/12 academic year. We looked at the range of qualifications and combinations of qualifications they held and investigated which institutions and subjects they were more likely to progress to.

Overall, we found that it is true that, these days, an increasing proportion of undergraduates held vocational qualifications (e.g. BTEC), but they often took them in combination with academic qualifications (e.g. A/AS).

However, academic qualifications are still the ‘passport’ to HE. When compared to students with an academic background, those who held vocational qualifications (both with and without academic qualifications) were less likely to study in ‘prestigious’ institutions (e.g. Russell Group), more likely to study degree subject areas with a more ‘applied’ component (‘Education’, ‘Technologies’, ‘Business and administration’, ‘Veterinary’, ‘Biological sciences’) and less likely to study subjects such as ‘Medicine’ (the degree which, on average, ensures the highest labour market outcomes), ‘Law’, ‘History and Philosophy’ and ‘Languages’.

Below is a more detailed list of findings, but much more is actually available in the paper:

    - Among undergraduate students the 80% held academic qualifications or combinations of academic qualifications (A level and/or IB, Pre-U, Extended Project, …). These students were more likely to go to universities in the Russell and 1994 groups while those holding vocational qualifications (BTEC, OCR nationals) were more likely to study in other types of universities (universities in the University Alliance or in the Million+ Group). Students with a mixture of qualifications (e.g. A level + BTEC) prior to entry at university were less likely to study in a Russell Group or 1994 Group university than those who held only academic qualifications [Figures 1 and 2].

    - A and AS Levels were the most popular qualifications held by undergraduates at higher education institutions. 86% of the students starting in 2011/12 held at least one A level, but the proportion with only A Levels was 28%. BTECs were the second most popular qualification held by undergraduates at HE institutions. The proportion of graduates with at least one BTEC (any type) was 14%, but most of them took also at least one A level [Tables 1 and 2].

    - The highest percentages of students with A Levels, and other academic qualifications (such as Pre-U) were found in universities of the Russell Group or 1994 Group. Holding an Extended Project or Pre-U GPR qualification alongside AS/A Levels significantly increased the probability of a student attending a university in the Russell or 1994 Groups, whereas having an OCR National or a BTEC alongside A Levels increased the likelihood of attending universities in the Million+ Group and in the University Alliance [Tables 4 and 5].

    - There was considerable variation across university subject areas in the proportion of students with different qualifications. Students with Pre-U and IB qualifications were more likely than average to study a joint honours course at university, whereas students with the more vocational qualifications, particularly BTEC Diplomas, were more likely to study a single subject.

    - Pre-U (rather than A level) appeared to increase significantly the likelihood of students to study ‘European languages and literature’ and ‘Linguistics and classics’. Holding an IB Diploma increased the likelihood of studying ‘Medicine’ and ‘languages’. It may be worth noting that students holding vocational qualifications were more likely to study specific subject areas, such as ‘Technologies’ and ‘Creative Arts and Design’.

Read the article in full in the Summer 2015 edition of Research Matters.

Nadir Zanini
Research Officer, Cambridge Assessment

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