The government's flagship foundation degree is making only limited progress towards ministers' main goals for higher education access and expansion, figures show.
The two-year course is so far having a disappointing impact on the prime minister's target of getting half of all 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education, as almost half of all foundation degree students are aged 30 or over. The qualification is also doing little to increase access to university among students from minority ethnic groups, according to an analysis by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Hesa found that 71 per cent of 8,760 students who enrolled on a foundation degree course offered by a university or higher education college last year were aged 21 or over. A quarter of first-year foundation degree students in 2001-03 were aged between 30 and 39, and almost a fifth were aged 40 or over. About 45 per cent of students are too old for government expansion targets.
Susan Hayday, higher education officer for the Association of Colleges, said: "Foundation degrees may be helping to fill the skills gap, but they are not providing as many student numbers as the government would like towards its 50 per cent target."
Experts pointed out other areas where the qualification was having a limited impact. David Robertson, director of education policy at Liverpool John Moores University, said there was little evidence from the figures that many students were progressing to foundation degrees from modern apprenticeships, as ministers had hoped they would.
More than half the students (53 per cent), for instance, were studying full time - an unlikely option for former MA students, most of whom would have jobs.
Professor Robertson, who has been commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to monitor the development of foundation degrees, said: "The government initially planned that the foundation degree would be a route into higher education for modern apprenticeship students, but that is clearly not happening at this stage and the government is going to have to attend to that."
The figures also show that the foundation degree is no more popular among students from non-white ethnic backgrounds than other higher education qualifications. Hesa found that about 86 per cent of foundation degree students were white, the same proportion as the rest of the student population. The figures showed that the qualification was popular among women: 72 per cent of all students were female.
Education was the most popular foundation subject. It accounted for a fifth of enrolments, possibly reflecting strong female interest in courses for classroom assistants. Social studies and business and administrative studies were the next most popular, each accounting for more than 13 per cent of enrolments.
A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said the figures, which exclude students on courses offered by further education colleges, showed "the broad-based appeal of the foundation degree to a wide range of students".