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Finding potential; bridging the gap between academic and vocational skills

27 Jun 2018

Dr Tony Strike, University Secretary and Director of Strategy and Governance at the University of Sheffield, discusses the importance of recognising the value of equivalent qualifications to A levels for entry to selective university programmes. 

The changing national context led the University of Sheffield to work with school and college partners to consider the transition to higher education of students with qualifications other than, but equivalent to, A levels. The national distribution of students with equivalent qualifications to A levels suggests they were not considering or being accepted for selective university programmes. Tertiary education is under review, the Government is to launch new T levels, which will sit alongside the previously reformed A levels as well as Degree Apprentices. Institutes of Technology are also coming into the post-18 education landscape. These changes could unhelpfully exacerbate a perceived academic and vocational divide, with the reformed technical education offer being presented as an alternative for those who do not go to University.

As universities we must re-assert the practical, real-life, applied, vocational nature of the programmes offered and at the same time broaden our own view of what is a suitable prerequisite; to win the argument that university programmes are concerned with knowledge and with its application – they are both academic and vocational. 

In a recent report, “Finding Potential: How a selective University can attract and retain high quality students with equivalent qualifications to A levels”, colleagues at the University of Sheffield called for action to support those students with potential going into university with qualifications other than A levels (predominantly BTECs).

Over the course of the 18-month Project I was struck by the variety of qualifications that students are now approaching University with and the contrast that this has with a traditionally A level focussed selection process. We are proud that this Project and the subsequent Report linked local Sixth Form/College teachers and their students with University departments and lecturers, to increase mutual understanding of curriculum, pedagogy, assessment methods and the skills learnt in each setting. This puts the University of Sheffield at the forefront of discussions on students holding BTECs and other equivalent qualifications as a prerequisite for selective programmes.

We found students with equivalent qualifications bring strengths in, for example, project work, team working, application of knowledge but that they may need support, for example, in essay writing, timed examinations and academic referencing. There is, however, no need to polarise students leaving school as either vocational or academic – just as we as higher education providers cannot be pigeonholed as either only technical or academic. The University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre shows that best advanced vocational education is underpinned by theory and takes place alongside leading-edge research conducted for global companies – transforming people and place. The brightest students following a so-called vocational route, whether doing a Degree or a Degree apprenticeship, belong in our best university programmes. 

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