Leader: Employers need foundation role

October 24, 2003

Foundation degrees are key to the government's planned expansion of higher education. Almost 10,000 students are taking them and the number is set to grow.

But a study this week shows that they are not the finished article yet.

Four of the 33 degrees examined received a vote of no confidence, far more than would be acceptable in the quality assurance of mainstream degrees.

At this early stage, it would be a surprise if foundation degrees were perfect. The flaws in content and delivery that have been uncovered are likely to be solved. And if they have achieved nothing else, the consortia that provide them prove that universities, colleges and other organisations can work effectively together to meet new educational requirements.

More serious are the problems that the survey uncovered relating to foundation degrees and the world of work. These degrees are advertised this week as a way for employees to enhance their skills and for firms to increase their competitiveness. But the survey shows that companies are poor at supporting foundation-degree learners and that the providers need to be better at meeting the needs of part-time students. Ways have to be developed for foundation degrees to be combined successfully with work.

Another weakness pointed up by this week's review is the lack of a smooth connection between foundation degrees and further study leading to a full honours degree. It would be better for foundation degrees to become established in their own right as a route to a professional career that offers something to both employers and students than to become another feeder for existing degrees. But the most serious criticism of foundation degrees as they exist today is their patchy success in involving employers.

In some cases, companies are full members of consortia alongside colleges and universities. But in others, employers are not involved enough in delivering the courses or in assessing their success.

The issue that this highlights is not unique to foundation degrees.

Businesses like graduates, but employers have been criticised for many years for not taking medium-level qualifications seriously. The proof that foundation degrees are succeeding will come when more companies get involved and place them at the centre of their staff development plans.

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