Building Foundations

The key Government agendas in education and training are standards, skills and widening participation. How will they be realised? FE College Principal, Dick Evans, looks at the new building blocks.

The Government has set an objective that half of all young people should benefit from higher education by the age of thirty. The belief is that once standards in schools and colleges are raised, they then expect to see a significant increase in the demand for places in higher education.

Raised levels of achievement will inevitably raise expectation by students to progress on to HE programmes of study. This additional growth comes on top of the doubling of HE over the past decade. And this, coupled with the highest graduation rates for Honours degrees in the European Union, raises some interesting issues about the nature and purpose of this additional growth.

Employers are increasingly highlighting skills gaps and shortages now and are most certainly worried about the future. In addition, labour market research continues to identify significant growth in the higher craft/technician/associate professional grades. These facts should come as no surprise as they have long been discussed and it has been a long-term weakness of this country, namely its inability to recognise and value the importance of vocational qualifications, sadly often seen as second rate awards. The education system of this country has often been seen as being skewed and biased towards honours degrees and the chartered professional routes at the expense of the ‘highly qualified technician and craftsperson’.

Bright innovative ideas and discoveries need to be developed through to products and services which are then marketed and sold within the global market. This is where the highly qualified technician is so strategically important to the future of this country’s success in the global market. Examples of this country’s previous failing include the inability to develop computer and jet technology (especially after the second world war), tilting trains, hover craft and to develop and sustain viable and successful motor and motor cycle industries at the end of the last century.

Despite existing excellent craft and technician provision at the lower levels, there still seems to be a very low level of progression on to higher qualifications and awards. Two recent proposals offer real hope to begin to create a qualifications system that will encourage and increase progression rates on to higher education and its associated awards. These two proposals are the Foundation Degree (FD) and the Graduate Apprenticeship (GA).

The Foundation Degree could play a significant part in increasing to fifty per-cent the participation rate for eighteen to thirty year olds. The proposal also reflects the concerns of the Government, and other end users, about the plethora of qualifications offered at ‘sub-degree level’ although this recognition must not create a single vehicle for ‘sub degree’ awards and destroy some existing important awards. The foundation degree must be complemented by a number of other awards at particularly NVQ level 4 and 5 allowing progression and transition opportunities for, say, higher craft people where the specification for the proposed Foundation Degree might not match with the requirements of these areas.

The principles of the new Foundation Degree will be guided by the following criteria:

  • Must be responsive to employer needs, that is they are to be vocationally biased and be underpinned by rigorous and broad based academic learning.
  • Include key skills which will be developed through work experience and these will be accredited
  • Form part of the lifelong learning agenda i) Foundation Degree will be seen as having a high credibility, integrity and value.
  • Guaranteed arrangements for articulation and progression to honours degree courses.

The potential student population that will be targeted by the Foundation Degree will be:

  • Mainly eighteen to thirty year olds.
  • People in employment.
  • People wishing to stay in work whilst studying
  • Those wanting a possible progression route from New Deal (ND).

The Foundation Degree (FD) will build upon the best practices of existing provision at this level, for example HNC, HND and DipHE. Other possibilities are to include NVQ accreditations and occupational standards and with the real prospect for APL, particularly for the older students.

The delivery profile could include:

*  Flexible modes of attendance and study.
*  Validation by higher education institutions with degree awarding powers.
*  Locally delivered by consortia including universities and colleges.
*  Offering better progression arrangements i.e. top up to a full degree in fifteen months.

The current consultation was due to be completed by 25th April 2000 and following that a number of bids will be sought for a small number of prototypes. There could be around eight of these. The prototypes start in September 2001 and, if all goes to plan, Foundation Degrees will be made available more widely from September 2003. What is already clear is that there is very major support from the Government, including the Prime Minister himself, for these proposals.

Obviously, employability is the watchword for Foundation Degrees and they will focus on the application of skill, knowledge, competence and understanding in employment. The inclusion of the six key skills is also to be welcomed, as the three wider skills are often quoted as being essential for people entering employment. Strong employer involvement in the development of the Foundation Degree is therefore important and expected. While universities and colleges will decide on content and teaching method, it is expected that the National Training Organisations (NTOs), the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), professional bodies and other relevant employer organisations must be involved in the development of this new qualification. Work experience, through placements etc., will be most certainly a major feature.

Clearly there are a lot of unanswered questions at present: Will the Foundation Degree increase participation or will it still be seen as a second class qualification by prospective students? If the characteristics and criteria that underpin it are truly realised, then the foundation degree will be seen as a very valuable qualification in its own right, offering an honourable exit for many students and/ or progression opportunities on to honours degree programmes for others.

Its relationship with other existing higher education awards is more uncertain. Many of the existing qualifications are greatly valued by employers, i.e. HNCs/HNDs, and it is important that due consideration is given to how these will be transferred into Foundation Degrees or, if they can continue to exist, in addition there should be a range of integral awards at NVQ 4 and 5. The Foundation Degree should not be the sole vehicle for sub-degree qualifications. If one is serious about building up relevant progression routes for higher craft and technician, then many of these will not fit comfortably or effectively into a Foundation Degree framework. There should, therefore, be a reduced number of HE awards; possibly, the Foundation Degree will ultimately become the primary vehicle, but others should continue to exist and be encouraged to satisfy the expectations of prospective students and employers.

Hopefully there will be an open and equal partnership developed between colleges and universities as colleges can bring a great deal to these developments, having been very closely associated with vocational education training over many decades and many colleges are involved with higher education in its own right. The Foundation Degree does most certainly offer some very exciting opportunities to develop a more coherent qualifications framework particularly providing opportunities for students who are gaining qualifications on the occupationally specific work related curriculum route of the Curriculum 2000 framework. Another interesting and possibly perplexing issue is the relationship between the Foundation Degree and Ufl and the e-University.

One interesting response to the proposals for a Foundation Degree has come from the Institution of Incorporated Engineers (IIE) who have cast doubts about the value of a two year degree programme. The IEE argue that the current HND offers the necessary foundation for a career in engineering and/or progression on to a honours degree programme. The Institution feel that the foundation degree will jeopardise and, indeed jettison already well established programmes and the associated standards for a broad-based introductory degree leading nowhere in particular.

Graduate apprenticeship.

The second pronouncement, namely on the Graduate Apprenticeship is also potentially a major advance on improving the skills, knowledge and understanding of people entering employment. It is important that this award, offering progression opportunities from the advanced, formerly known as the modern apprenticeship, can be accommodated alongside the Foundation Degree, along with a number of valuable and complementary awards at NVQ 4 and 5.

Despite the relatively low completion rate for Modem Apprenticeships they have, overall, been one of the more successful initiatives in improving the work-based route over the past few decades. The Department for Education and Employment has recently announced a number of changes in the way Modern Apprenticeships are operated which will underpin the proposed graduate apprenticeship and these include:

*  The existing national traineeships will now become known as Foundation Modern Apprenticeships (FMAs).
*  The current Modern Apprenticeship will now become known as the Advanced Modern Apprenticeship (AMAs)
*  There will be a rationalisation of a range of vocational qualifications to give a clearer accreditation and statement of what underpinning skills and knowledge are needed for the workplace.
*  A specified period of off-the-job learning in college or private provider with a possible minimum of one day a week, for such activities.
*  Minimum periods of learning will now be specified, for example, two years for the Advanced Modern Apprenticeship.
*  More rigorous entry requirements

The following aspects must be considered, namely guaranteed apprentice opportunities for 16-18 year olds, independent monitoring and support regimes, financial incentives for employers and awards for trainees and licensing of employers who want to engage in the Advanced Modern Apprenticeship. Hopefully if this does not attract greater bureaucracy and paperwork for employers then these proposals, if introduced, could make Modern Apprenticeships more attractive. However, a number of SMEs have already indicated their concern about the combination of licensing and the mandatory off-the-job training which could, from their viewpoint, make Modern Apprenticeships less attractive particularly for the smaller employer. It remains to be seen if this difference of view between the DfEE and employers can be reconciled. However, one point is very clear, that the development of the Graduate Apprenticeship will offer real opportunities for trainees to progress on to higher level awards that, if configured correctly, will match the future needs of employers in terms of skills, knowledge, understanding and competence.

One of the interesting developments associated with the Graduate Apprenticeship has been associated with the Engineering Programme. This country desperately needs to increase the stock and flow of highly qualified technicians particularly into Engineering, Manufacturing and related disciplines. Key organisations have been involved in developing the Graduate Apprenticeship framework including the Engineering and Marine Training Authority (EMTA) and the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF). The basic framework reflects the strong and essential link with employers and the need to provide clear and definite progression and transition routes for the engineers in line with the Engineering Council SARTOR framework. Other Graduate Apprenticeship frameworks for other disciplines will no doubt be similar in their essential components. For convenience the proposed Graduate Apprenticeship Model for Engineering will be discussed.

Figure 1 shows the proposed basic components of the Model. It must be stressed that the Model is still under discussion and possibly will be refined.

fig1: Graduate Apprenticeship Model. (N.B. Foundation component MUST NOT BE CONFUSED with the Foundation Degree - in this context it is the basic [foundational) requirements for engineering students).

fig1: Graduate Apprenticeship Model. (N.B. Foundation component MUST NOT BE CONFUSED with the Foundation Degree – in this context it is the basic [foundational) requirements for engineering students).

Figure 2 attempts to show the outcome elements to the components.

fig02: Summary of Required Outcomes. Note the Levels as defined by Dearing Review in HE.

fig02: Summary of Required Outcomes. Note the Levels as defined by Dearing Review in HE.

The model stresses the importance of Key Skills including the wider ones that employers have long argued for e.g. problem solving. In addition the integration of work-based elements with more relevant higher education components is important. The recognition of the importance of management/business studies, marketing is welcomed and will reinforce the importance of the elements in the engineering and manufacturing industries. As team working and island manufacturing continues the development of a more ‘rounded’ highly qualified workforce will begin to address some of the long standing difficulties in these industries. Too often good ideas have failed to be developed into the essential stages of research and development, manufacture, marketing and sales and after customer support. The synergistic dynamism of a well-educated and trained team will be strengthened by the inclusion of these essential aspects into the members’ repertoire of knowledge, skills and competencies profile.

The introduction of the Graduate Apprenticeships, hopefully, will complement the existing awards and increase the stock and flow of highly qualified technicians. It promises much in raising the profile of the work-based and vocational route for education and training.

However I fear the proposals for the Graduate Apprenticeship will take a long tme to be developed and even then have a short life!

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