Leader: Keep the foundations

May 28, 2004

It is still too soon to judge whether foundation degrees will justify the government's faith in them as the main engine of higher education expansion. The number of applicants for full-time courses has increased by 50 per cent since last year, but there are still only 12,000 in a field of 250,000. Although part-time enrolments are arguably more important in this case, the figures suggest that foundation degrees have a long way to go to capture public imagination - especially when the growth coincides with a similar drop in recruitment to higher national diplomas.

In such circumstances, it is natural for ministers and their advisors to look for ways to boost the programme, but the proposal to introduce general foundation degrees smacks of desperation. The raison d'être of the new courses was to focus on defined needs in specific industries.

Foundation degrees were to be based largely in the workplace, offering truly vocational higher education and showing that expansion would not mean more of the same. A general course would meet none of these criteria and would reawaken old fears that two-year degrees would replace the real thing. The most successful foundation degrees have been those most closely targeted; many more general courses have already fallen by the wayside.

Where work placements are scarce, employers may be delivering a valuable message about demand for graduates. The answer is not to alter the formula to suit providers.

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