For a qualification that is so central to government plans to expand higher education, three years after the first courses were launched the foundation degree remains remarkably little understood. Although 24,000 students enrolled last year and more are expected to do so this autumn, many employers and even people in some parts of the higher education system appear to have no clear idea of what they are for. It is fair to assume that the wider public is at best only dimly aware of their existence. The confusion started with the name: by appropriating the degree title, ministers hoped to give added status to vocational courses, but they sacrificed clarity. Two-year, work-based courses, which should have been what the critics of unwarranted expansion of honours places wanted, were instead dismissed as more Mickey Mouse degrees. It remains uncertain whether they will be seen primarily as a route to an honours degree or a discrete qualification tackling skills shortages. Do they amount to little more than a repackaging of higher national diplomas or is the workplace element of the course genuinely innovative?
Today's task force report naturally puts the best possible gloss on the story thus far and makes some sensible recommendations. The relationship between further education providers and higher education validators plainly needs reworking, while prospective students deserve an honest assessment of the prospects for academic and career progression.
Some in higher education will be alarmed by the proposal to allow exam boards, rather than universities, to award some part-time foundation degrees, but there are areas in which an experiment would be justified.
The group expects the Government's initial target of 50,000 students to be met and makes the case for funding twice that number by 2010. But foundation degrees will have to make more of a mark if this is to be a realistic proposition. The report acknowledges that it is too soon to be certain what impact the courses will have on widening participation, or what currency the qualification will enjoy in the labour market. With many institutions considering lower fees than for honours degrees, the top-up era may work to the advantage of foundation degrees, but private-sector employers have still to be won over. Perhaps the most revealing statistics in today's report concern the high proportion of places - approaching half - targeted at the public sector. While improving the skills of public servants is an essential task, demand from the private sector is the ultimate test. The proportion of students taking intermediate higher education is much lower in the UK than in most industrialised nations, and foundation degrees should be the right vehicle to help move to a more sustainable profile. But it is hard to be confident yet that they will make sufficient impact in the market to make that leap.