The government is relying on the foundation degree to meet its participation targets, so why has the degree had so little publicity? Tony Tysome reports.
The foundation degree, the United Kingdom's "intermediate" higher education qualification, was launched on a wave of enthusiasm this month.
Some 44 consortia of universities and further education colleges anticipated a strong demand for places on their vocationally oriented courses. They cover a diverse range of subjects including aircraft engineering, equine studies, new media design and music technology.
Foundation degrees are offered by most consortia as a part-time option, with employers closely involved in the programme design and content.
But educationists and institutions have also pressed for the development of the full-time two-year version, which ministers have suggested could make a significant contribution to the government's higher education expansion targets.
Universities and colleges were quick to snap up the opportunity to become part of the initiative and to bid for extra funded places.
Yet the latest survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the consultancy supporting and monitoring the introduction of foundation degrees, shows that the launch has got off to a shaky start.
Latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service statistics show that 664 people have been accepted to study for foundation degrees on 66 full-time courses at 30 institutions.
Information gathered at the beginning of August revealed that less than a third of courses had been filled, with 24 per cent recruiting less than a quarter of their target numbers at that point.
Colin Biggs, head of PwC higher education arm, described the findings as "nothing to worry about".
He said: "I do not think the figures are worrying when you think about the normal pattern of recruitment for part-time courses and the fact that this qualification is totally new. The danger is that they are seen as the writing on the wall on what things will be like in October. We can expect to see a lot of change in the next three weeks."
Mr Biggs is equally calm about a significant gap between course providers' recruitment expectations in June and the reality in August. The PwC survey showed that 64 per cent of providers were expecting to fill courses, compared with 28 that had done so by the beginning of last month (see graph).
"I suppose what that emphasises is that when people are planning how things will work out, there is a tendency to be reasonably bullish about it," he said.
But others involved in the introduction and delivery of foundation degrees have expressed strong concerns.
Anecdotal evidence from institutions suggests that the full-time version of foundation degrees, in particular, is struggling to recruit.
Russell Moseley, director of open studies at the University of Warwick, which is running part-time programmes in learning support and community enterprise and management, said: "There was always a tension between what was essentially a work-based qualification where you were obviously talking about adults in employment, and a programme where you recruited 18-year-olds and gave them some work experience.
"The Department for Education and Skills was told that the full-time programmes might find it difficult, but they were keen to cast their net wide. There was no group that foundation degrees were not aiming for."
David Robertson, head of policy development at Liverpool John Moores University and a member of the foundation degree group set up by the government to oversee the qualification's development, said it was essential that the foundation degree be successful in order to meet the government's widening participation targets.
The apparent failure of the full-time version to attract sufficient numbers of students was largely down to a funding system still skewed towards supporting traditional qualifications, he said.
"Everything in higher education signals that students would be wise to opt for the traditional three-year degree. That is where the student demand will go, because that is where all the subsidies go and where the funding steer points them. It will not change until we stimulate the market in some way, such as saying that the Exchequer will cover the cost of studying for a two-year degree," he said.
Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College and a member of the foundation degree group, said poor recruitment this year could be a symptom of the "usual knee-jerk reaction to anything new and the mantra that it represents a diminution of standards".
Entry standards for foundation degrees are seen as an important issue among providers and quality watchdogs, particularly in the context of a difficult recruitment market. Dr Moseley, who has been part-seconded to a DFES group supporting the development of foundation degrees, commented: "There are some interesting questions around entry standards, particularly because of the requirement to reach undergraduate level within two years. It means you have to look at reasonably well qualified students if you are going to take them through that route. That raises some questions about access."
Perhaps the greatest concern among providers and coordinators is that the full-time foundation degree has suffered from an absence of national publicity. The government says it has launched its marketing campaign for the qualification. But so far this seems to have had little impact.
Susan Hayday, curriculum manager for the Association of Colleges, said: "We understand there has been a marketing campaign, but we haven't seen it. In terms of raising awareness about the foundation degree, there has been a national failure."
The part-time version has not suffered as much from this because institutions have been able to attract students through their employers, who have been involved in course development.
Nevertheless, even some part-time versions have found the going tough, where institutions have chosen subject areas allied to industry suffering from a downturn, such as telecommunications.
Dr Moseley said: "If you have a good consortium of employers, then the national marketing situation should not make a difference. When you know where people are in work and you have the employer on board, then you should be pushing at an open door. But if you are trying to attract 18-year-olds, then the lack of national publicity will be an important factor."
Margaret Lawson, the AoC's foundation degrees coordinator, said: "To be fair, I think the DFES had already envisaged foundation degrees as a part-time qualification, and we were surprised when so many consortia put in a bid for full time. The work-based learning element of the course is not a bolt-on. Students are learning on the job, which to me means they should be in employment."
But she added: "Since it's such a new and different qualification it needs to have its profile raised. I think there is still a lot of confusion out there between foundation degrees and foundation years."
Elizabeth Turrel, an adviser for the Exeter Connexions careers service, said: "I was working with one young man who was thinking about foundation degrees because his A levels had not come out so well and he had got three Es. He was confused about the difference between foundation years and the foundation degree," she said.
According to Derek Bell, vice-principal of Bishop Grosseteste College in Lincoln, which is offering a foundation degree in classroom assistance, there needs to be greater flexibility in distinctions between full and part time.
Bishop Grosseteste has arranged for paid work to be assessed as part of a full-time foundation degree.
"I think that may be where the full-time version is falling down. If these students were not getting paid for the work element, they would not be able to do the degree," he said.
Some institutions have got around the flexibility problem by offering the degree through distance learning.
Warwickshire College has been overwhelmed with applications for places on its distance-learning equine studies foundation degree, even though it already offers five higher national diplomas and five degree courses in various aspects of the subject.
Ann Cotterill, the college's higher education manager, said: "It's a different focus because we are not targeting traditional school-leavers. I think students are enthusiastic because we have been so closely involved with employers in the design of the programme."
But some institutions have found that even close employer involvement has not guaranteed success when it comes to recruiting school-leavers.
The University of Teesside has had to drop its plans for a full-time foundation degree in chemical technology despite close industry links and the offer of a £1,000 bursary for students signing up.
Very few school representatives attended open evenings held by the university to promote the course, and it seemed that "neither teachers nor careers advisers were interested", said Paul Burdon, deputy director of the university's school of science and technology.
A part-time version of the course has recruited well. Mr Burdon said that despite the full-time disappointment he thought foundation degrees were "a ball that is rolling and nothing is going to stop it".
Some employers had been nervous about taking the plunge in getting involved with the initiative.
"They say it sounds like a wonderful idea, but at the back of their mind they are thinking along the lines that you would not want to buy the first car off a production line," Mr Burdon said.
This kind of thinking made it vital for the government to show that it backed the qualification fully at a national level, he said.
"I am desperate that the government start promoting foundation degrees. The full-time market is a national one, which means that people have to have an understanding of what foundation degrees are.
"Otherwise there is a danger we will be facing the same problems next year," he said.
* Kingston: aircraft engineering
Stephen Barnes, an engineer seconded to Kingston University to coordinate this full-time foundation degree, said aircraft engineering was a niche market for the qualification.
"There are many highly qualified engineers who do not have the academic qualifications because there has never been any course for them.
There are a few higher national diplomas but they are not aligned with the licence qualification that you need to get on in the industry."
But finding financial support for students is proving difficult. "We still do not have employers coming forward to support this initiative," he said.
Ray Flower, chief instructor for airline operator KLM, which is collaborating with Kingston on the design and delivery of the course, said there had been more than100 applicants for 56 places.
"We have had our own in-house training college for many years, but there has been no academic recognition of the training," he said.
* Warwick: community enterprise and development
"This part-time course is an example of the kind of programme institutions might not be prepared to run without the foundation degree format," said John Field, Warwick University's professor of lifelong learning.
"Foundation degrees let you run courses that may have a shorter life cycle. You can have a changing portfolio of work that allows you to innovate. There are occupational areas that have come through in the past few years, and we cannot be sure where they are going. With foundation degrees, we can see how it works out," he said.
"The type of student we are attracting is different from the run-of-the-mill type we get at Warwick," he added.
One recruit, Vicki Urch, is a community development manager. She has three O levels, a higher national certificate in business, a City and Guilds computer programming qualification, but no A levels. She wanted a qualification that would not take her out of work.
Adrian Edgington has a mixed bag of qualifications, including a lecturing certificate. He became a community development worker after his business folded. He said: "It is ten years since I last sat in a classroom. But I am confident."
* Leicester: classroom assistance
Leicester University has been inundated with applications for the 100 places on this part-time foundation degree run in collaboration with local colleges.
The reason for its popularity, according to course coordinator Min Wilkie, is that it is filling a gap in the market.
"I have been working with mature students on what could be seen as a feeder course, but there wasn't anything for the students to move to. The foundation degree is meeting a need," she said.
With candidates coming forward with non-traditional entry qualifications, recruiters have had to be flexible.
"The standard requirement is five GCSEs, but we have had people with things such as nursery nursing qualifications. In some cases, we have had to advise people to do another course first," she said.
Kerry Hadley, who has been a classroom assistant for the past six years, said her work commitments and responsibilities as a mother made study on a part-time basis essential.
Katy Kenyon has been working as a careers adviser. She said: "It is ideal for people in my situation who need to work. But there is not enough publicity. The Teacher Training Agency didn't mention it when I contacted them in spring."