Diploma in disguise

February 18, 2000

This week, education secretary David Blunkett announced a new qualification, the two-year foundation degree, to start in 2001.

The degrees, which will be in job-related subjects such as computing and business studies, are aimed at students who gain two A levels but do not go on to higher education. With work experience a key part of the new degrees, employers, too, are expected to value them.

New universities, in particular, might be expected to welcome the way this degree has been framed as demonstrating the government's recognition of their traditions - vocational and linked to the local community's needs.

So why the scepticism?

Well, are these really degrees as outlined by the Quality Assurance Agency's work on benchmarking and quality frameworks for honours degrees?

A key principle behind the QAA's work has been to dispel the perception among students and employers that higher education qualifications are riddled with confused terminology. Yet here is a proposal to introduce a different degree with an exit level that corresponds to that of existing diplomas, such as the long-established Higher National Diplomas.

HNDs have been losing popularity. Will employers and potential students be more attracted by foundation degrees?

Mr Blunkett wants to ensure that foundation degrees are of a high standard. But what is the reality likely to be? If there is any concern among potential students, employers or universities and colleges that these qualifications are in some sense second class, for second-rate students, then the initiative will be doomed.

Some critics say that these qualifications are appropriate for those coming from the lower socio-economic groups. How insulting to those who are putting their feet on the higher education ladder to be told: "Here is a lower-level qualification designed for you."

Mr Blunkett did not fall into that trap this week. Rather, he said that these might be appropriate for those who find the prospect of three years full-time or perhaps five years part-time study too daunting. Since the new degrees can be topped up to honours level they could make higher education look more accessible.

But is this anything new? For those universities that do not have an established diploma route the answer is "yes". But will such universities embrace this new qualification?

The plan is for all universities to offer these degrees, but will that really happen or will they become the preserve of the new universities along with their associate colleges? If the latter, will they gain the widespread recognition necessary to make them successful?

Perhaps the over-riding element needed for success will be the acceptance of these degrees by employers. Many universities, including Westminster, already work closely with employers to develop programmes to meet their needs. Yet we hear laments by employers that universities do not produce graduates fit for work. Much work experience already takes place, indeed many employers claim that they are saturated and can support no more students on work placements. Will these same employers, particularly small and medium-sized companies, find the time and money to provide placements for students on these new degrees?

One answer is that some of these students will be employees already studying part-time. But our experience at Westminster is that employers are increasingly unwilling to support their students in part-time study.

Westminster already teaches part-time vocationally related programmes with a diploma exit route. Can we re-badge these as foundation degrees to help meet the government's targets? Or will we have to submit these for validation to the group that will be designing these new degrees before we can use the foundation degree title? If so, is there a danger that we will find that our successful formula, meeting local needs, is watered down to meet some national blueprint?

And the last and perhaps most important question mark that hangs over this initiative - will these new degrees be funded at the same level as other degree courses?

Geoffrey Copland is vice-chancellor, Westminster University.

Are the new foundation degrees second-class qualifications for

second-rate students?

Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk Geoffrey Copland is full of doubts about the government's new two-year foundation degrees

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