The government's flagship foundation degree is struggling in the face of recruitment shortfalls and validation delays, according to a report leaked to The THES .
And under-recruitment may be compounded by this year's anticipated surplus of degree places in universities. This means that students who might otherwise have opted for a foundation degree may choose and secure a place on a full degree course.
The unpublished report, by Pricewaterhouse Coopers for civil servants and funding chiefs, identifies several problems just weeks before the vocational sub-degree programmes are due to begin.
The report, produced this month, says that while "good progress was being made in relation to most FD programmes", there are "some concerns", largely relating to timescales, recruitment and competition with other forms of provision, such as Higher National Diplomas and Higher National Certificates.
Based on data returns from 44 consortia of colleges and universities who will provide the qualifications, the report says that recruitment was well below target as of July. The foundation-degree programmes had received an average of 45 applications each, compared with an average number of target places of 64.
Approaching half (43 per cent) of the providers said they expected to miss their foundation-degree recruitment targets for 2001. One provider predicted it would fill fewer than a quarter of available places. Five of the providers said that, as of July, they had not yet received any applications for the courses.
Marketing had also been a problem. Nearly 60 per cent of providers judged at least some elements of their own marketing initiatives as "not very effective". Eight providers had little confidence in the effectiveness of open days and six said that websites were proving ineffective. Others judged roadshows and advertisements as having limited success.
Some providers said they had not used marketing materials provided by the Department for Education and Skills. Fifteen said they had not used official leaflets and ten said they had not used the official foundation-degree logo.
Some courses were reported as struggling to meet "very tight timescales". The programmes are all supposed to be up and running in October, following a summer publicity campaign.
The report says that only 64 per cent of foundation programmes had been validated by their institutions by early July. The remaining 34 per cent were expected to be validated by the end of this month "with the exception of one due for validation in October 2001".
Providers also indicated that significant work was yet to be done on programme design. Several providers reported that "some further development" was required in all key programme design areas addressed in the report, including looking at work-based learning and the development of skills and knowledge.
Concerns raised included poor marketing by central government, inappropriate funding models and insufficient differentiation from HND. The government advertising campaign was delayed by the general election.
A spokeswoman for the DFES said recruitment was expected to pick up. "We have seen a considerable amount of interest through our website and through institutions themselves. We do expect a lot of applications to come in during clearing so it's too early to give a reliable picture of take up."
She said it was expected that programmes would be validated by autumn, and "it would be highly unlikely that an institution would start to run a course without the proper validation procedure being in place".
"Foundation degrees are part of a deliberate strategy to diversify higher education to meet the differing demands of a knowledge based economy. Foundation degrees will add a further rung on the coherent ladder of vocational learning that begins in school with vocational GCSEs and progresses upwards through foundation and advanced modern apprenticeships and other work-based qualifications," she said.
Careers advisers with the government's new Connexions service confirmed that some school-leavers with grades as low as two Es at A level are contemplating a degree course rather than foundation degrees.
The Association of Colleges has warned that this might result in higher first-year dropout rates in universities. Maggie Scott, the AoC's curriculum and quality adviser, said: "The danger is that if universities drop their entrance requirements to fill degree courses, students who should be doing another course first to prepare themselves for higher education will be tempted to apply. "