Action on standards

September 22, 1995

The proportion of students taken on to foundation courses after failing their A levels is tiny, the Higher Education Quality Council has told the Government. A report ordered by Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment contradicts recent alarm about admissions to foundation courses. The HEQC said this week there was no evidence that standards were falling.

Responses from 108 universities and colleges to a questionnaire issued three weeks ago showed that many institutions refused even to consider students who had recently failed their A levels, while others were prepared only to look at those with marginal failures in one or two subjects.

"While it is clearly unrealistic to try to assess the actual numbers of A-level failures being accepted on to foundation courses in 1995, because the admissions process is still in train, information about 1993 and 1994 suggests that the proportion of such students is almost certainly very tiny," the report says.

Most students on foundation courses are mature, selected on the basis of prior learning and experience, or are converting, usually from arts to science subjects, the survey found. Almost all of 216 foundation courses reported by institutions are in the shortage areas of engineering and science, with a considerable number franchised to further education colleges.

Requirements at the end of the foundation year to allow progression on to a degree programme are generally formal, rigorous and often externally examined. There were just one or two institutions where practice was "less good", and the council would be following these cases up.

"Rarely is a distinction drawn between the quality assurance procedures covering foundation courses and those applied to other provision," the report says. Typically the percentage of foundation year students going straight on to a degree course is between 55 per cent and 75 per cent, suggesting "there is nothing automatic about progression".

However current research may rekindle worries about entry requirements. Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Manchester University, claimed this week that his own research shows that students who had failed their A levels were being taken on to degree courses as well as foundation courses.

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