Foundation Degrees Revisited

In this article Dick Evans considers the progress of the Foundation Degree (FD) prototypes particularly in subjects that traditionally have experienced difficulties in recruiting and have serious skill shortages in the work place e.g. science, engineering and construction.

Analysis of the existing prototypes of the FDs provides an interesting insight into how providers are developing FDs. Many of the prototypes are in business; commerce, media and IT related subjects. The first tranche of prototypes technically finish this year and presumably after an evaluation will be introduced across universities and colleges this autumn.

The government has set a target that 50% of 18-30 year olds should have participated in higher education by the year 2010.

Prototypes started from September/October 2001;

Currently there are 65 programmes of study with 12 400 students enrolled. 50% attend full-time. In 2001/02 there were 4 458 students enrolled with 57% attending full-time. Most of the students are in the age range 18-25.

  • Programmes in construction = 2.
  • Programmes in technology = 1.
  • Programmes in mathematics = 0.
  • Programmes in science    = 3
    -Forensic science
    -Sports Science.
  • Programmes in engineering = 2
  • Aircraft engineering
  • Automotive manufacturing.

The government now see the Foundation Degree (FD) as being the major vehicle for increasing and widening participation in HE and hence delivering this questionable target. An example of how this priority is reflected in government initiatives is highlighted by the fact that the proposed National Health Service University (NHSU) is advocating that the FD is a primary award within its prospectus and commitment to raising skill and qualifications levels in the National Health Service. Interesting to compare the early aspirations of the Ufl and the latest attempt to create a corporate university for the NHS but that’s another article! The recent White Paper on HE (1) stresses the importance of the subdegree award in increasing and widening participation in HE – it is unfortunate that these awards are referred to as foundation and/or sub-degree as it conveys a second class qualification and undermines the worthy intentions and expectations of raising the profile and value of vocational/work-based qualifications. This could significantly deter students from enrolling on a foundation degree especially in shortage areas such as science, mathematics and engineering.

The low number of prototypes offered in these areas sadly reflects the continuing decline in student enrolments in such strategically important disciplines. Enrolments at NVQ level 4 e.g. HNC/HNDs in these subjects have dramatically declined over the past two decades particularly in the FE colleges and former polytechnics. The underlying issues are well known and have been comprehensively considered by many learned bodies over many years including the Engineering Council, Royal Society, and Skills Task Force et al. The key issue is whether the development of the Foundation Degree, when it is rolled out in 2003, will reverse this concerning and continuing trend. Many factors will be in play about the flow of students into FDs and will include:

  • The low take up by students of post-16 programmes of study in science, mathematics, construction and engineering e.g. GCE ‘AS’, ‘A’ levels, AVCEs and AMAs which in turn creates difficulties in attracting students on to science, mathematics and engineering undergraduate programmes of study.
  • The growing crisis associated with shortages of specialist teaching and support staff in these disciplines in colleges and universities.
  • The continuing problems with mathematical and scientific competence in students progressing to further and higher study which will require careful management in any FD programme and the bridging element for progression on to the honours degree programme.
  • The high cost of resourcing programmes of study in these disciplines which often recruit relatively low student numbers and subsequently raises questions about value for money for institutions already financially struggling. Many departments have been closed, merged or reduced in size in colleges and universities over the past decade.
  • The latest strategically important subject that will witness closures in universities this year will be mathematics – up to six departments could be closed or merged with other academic units.

General Issues/ Questions associated with FDs.

Beyond those relating just to shortage subjects there are a range of other issues that will need to be addressed:

  • Student finances – issues around top up fees and significant long term debt.
  • Institutional finances – will sufficient funding follow the increased student numbers?
  • Title of award – foundation/sub degree relegates the qualification, work based learning and the vocations.
  • Are there more students wishing to study science, mathematics and engineering that are not already catered for -how will the FD increase and widen participation? Is there a finite limit to people who wish to study or are able to study these subjects?
  • Will the FD replace the current qualifications e.g. HNC/HNDs, CGLI HLQs, Dip HE and other professional awards? Many of these are very highly regarded by employers.
  • The FD must not become the sole ‘sub-degree’ award a variety of qualifications must continue to be offered which satisfy increasing demands from more diverse learner populations. Such awards are HNC/HNDs and the new CGLI HLQs Will the FD be seen as an award in its own right or just become a feed for an honours degree ? (Another example of academic drift that has dominated the HE scene in this country and has contributed to the relegation and lack of parity of esteem of vocational awards).
  • Will the government’s hope that students will ‘earn as they learn’ be realised?
  • Will the evaluation of the prototypes be comprehensive and open to close and critical scrutiny?

There is little doubt that FDs are here to stay but for them to become embedded within the culture of Higher Education and in the minds of potential students and their parents these issues will need to be tackled as a matter of urgency.

(1) “The future of higher education”. Cm 5735 DfES 2003.

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