Bosses shaky about foundation degrees

October 3, 2003

Employers are confused about the intended role and purpose of foundation degrees, a national survey has found.

Many employers believe the term "foundation" implies a general base of knowledge and skills rather than a higher-level qualification that does not require further training.

And in the business and industry sectors, where higher national diplomas and higher national certificates are well understood, employers often see "no obvious need to introduce new awards", says a report on the findings from the Learning and Skills Development Agency.

A survey of employers in computing and information technology, construction, engineering, hospitality and leisure management, and general business found that although there was support in principle for higher-education programmes that focused more on work-related skills, companies would not "buy in" to the foundation degree until they were "clear how it was significantly different from existing qualifications".

The report is likely to raise questions about the government's policy of expanding higher education through foundation degrees, and about the moves to convert HNDs into double-badged awards carrying the foundation degree title. Plans to expand the number of students on foundation-degree programmes are due to be published next week.

Employers acknowledge that the foundation degree could become an important vehicle for developing skills and knowledge in their workforce under the right circumstances.

However, they have warned that current funding arrangements for students, as well as present work patterns, are likely to be barriers unless more flexible modes of study and more responsive support packages are introduced.

Many employers do see the foundation degree as a logical extension of modern apprenticeships. But, they said, it was "not clear whether it would be able to fulfil this role", partly as a result of problems with apprenticeships.

Foundation-degree students interviewed as part of the survey tended to view the label "degree" as increasing their programme's attractiveness.

But the report warns that there is a perception among employers and institutions that recent drives to increase participation in higher education may have shifted attention away from the value of intermediate-level qualifications as ends in themselves. "Although these opportunities might be welcome in terms of widening participation and progression within higher education, they may diminish (in both students'

and employers' eyes) the status and value of the intermediate, sub-degree qualification," it says.

The report concludes that it is "as yet unclear" whether foundation degrees will attract a new type of student to higher education or whether "they will attract those who previously would have done another sub-degree programme, such as an HND".

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