Nearly a third of foundation degree courses run by further education colleges are struggling to fill places, and more than one in eight has been axed, a national survey has found.
The findings of the survey, conducted last month by The Times Higher and the Association of Colleges, cast fresh doubts over the Government's flagship two-year courses, intended to lead the expansion of student numbers in higher education.
Fears are growing among college heads that they will fail to meet ambitious government targets to expand the number of students taking up the degrees.
The principals blame low student demand, mismanagement by higher education partners, problems with employer involvement and a weak government publicity campaign for underrecruitment and discontinuation of courses.
Most say it would be a mistake to replace higher national diplomas completely with the new qualification. The survey provides the most up-to-date snapshot of colleges' views on foundation degrees. It found that of 234 degrees launched by the 52 colleges, 72 are struggling to recruit and another 31 have been discontinued.
With just under a third of courses facing recruitment difficulties, half the colleges said the Government's target to have 100,000 students on foundation degree courses by 2010 was "not very realistic". Another 10 per cent described it as "completely unrealistic".
More than half (52 per cent) said the government-funded publicity campaign launched last year to establish the foundation-degree brand was "completely ineffective", while the remainder thought it had been only a "partial success".
Very low demand from students was the most common reason given for courses failing. Some colleges blamed higher education partners for mismanaging validation arrangements or marketing of the courses.
Another problem cited was that foundations had been launched in subject areas already covered by popular HNDs. Perhaps for this reason more than half the colleges (54 per cent) said the diplomas should not be replaced completely by foundation degrees. Another 29 per cent thought only HNDs with proven employer recognition should be retained.
The survey found that more than two thirds of colleges had yet to decide how much to charge for foundation courses once top-up fees were introduced.
Just 4 per cent have decided to charge the top rate of £3,000 for full-time courses. Some 46 per cent thought top-ups would have no impact on charges for part-time foundation degrees, while 43 per cent thought they would mean higher fees.
John Brennan, chief executive of the AoC, said a lot of the early problems with foundation degrees were about difficulties in crossing the "fault line" between colleges and employers.
He said: "New initiatives will always take time to bed down, and colleges will readily admit that much has been learnt on the way about engaging with, and meeting the needs of, employers."