For more than a year, we have been speculating as to the outcome of Philip Augar’s review of post-18 education and funding. We knew that the government wanted to address public mistrust in the student funding system and that a proposal to lower tuition fees was not out of the question. We also knew that the panel had been instructed to keep its proposals cost-neutral, meaning that any reduction in tuition fees would likely be accompanied by less generous rules on student loan repayments.
What we could not have expected, however, was a sudden proposal to scrap university foundation years. Sir Philip Augar and his colleagues diligently consulted the higher and further education sectors as part of his review, but at no stage did he appear to question the value of university-delivered foundation years.
This is extremely troubling, because it gave no opportunity for universities to articulate the value and importance of university foundation years. In the coming months, we must make sure that we do so. As a sector, we must ask ourselves the questions that the panel failed to raise and we must make clear what foundation years are, who they appeal to, why they have risen in popularity and, importantly, what they achieve.
I am proud to lead the University of Bedfordshire, which was one of the first universities to develop an innovative foundation year. Our objectives in doing so were clear. We wanted to create opportunities for those able and motivated to pursue higher education to do so, regardless of their background.
Where we led, many universities followed. In May, the University of Oxford announced that it was launching a year-long foundation course for students who have experienced personal disadvantage or severely disrupted education. Oxford’s initiative was closely followed by a similar announcement from the University of Cambridge, marking perhaps one of the clearest signals that university foundation years have become an integral part of the university offer.
Now, just as university foundation years are rising, the Augar review has proposed their closure. The review recognises the importance of courses that prepare students for university study, however ultimately promotes access to higher education courses, delivered by further education providers, as more appropriate and cost-effective.
The review rightly identifies that the number of foundation year students in England almost tripled between 2012/13 and 2017/18, from 10,430 to 30,030. In stark contrast, the number of entrants to access courses declined from 36,880 to 30,410 over the same period.
As a former minister with responsibility for both HE and FE provision, I am a strong advocate of access courses and I agree with the panel that the decline in students taking these courses is worrying and should be properly understood. However, a rise in access courses does not necessitate a fall in foundation year provision. Indeed, it is hugely beneficial that students have a choice as to whether they want to pursue an access or a foundation year course.
There are real and distinct advantages to foundation year provision, just as there are advantages to access courses. The greatest advantage of foundation years is that they are delivered within universities. This allows students to adapt to the institutional culture and curricula at a particular campus.
Foundation year students can learn and grow alongside existing students. They can explore their interests in particular subjects and learn from others. This can be hugely valuable in building the confidence that they need to enrol in a degree course and to succeed. Indeed, the OfS has noted that foundation years have higher progression and retention rates than access qualifications do.
Of equal value, we must not underestimate the wider impact that offering a foundation year brings to universities themselves. Foundation years make our campuses more diverse and can drive forward real cultural change at our institutions. They make sure that our academics are better equipped to work with a wider range of students, with a greater appreciation of where our students come from and what they have learned before.
The launch of the new foundation year courses at different types of universities reflects a collective commitment to offer choice and opportunity to students from all backgrounds. Degree courses with a foundation year open up the possibility of a university degree to those from diverse and challenging backgrounds, allowing students the time and flexibility to make informed decisions about their future study. It is imperative for future generations that this valuable offer is retained.
Bill Rammell is vice-chancellor at the University of Bedfordshire.
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