Don't downgrade solid foundations for success

December 8, 2006

Allowing colleges to award two-year degrees could harm a still maturing qualification, says Drummond Bone

The Further Education and Training Bill, which receives its second reading in the House of Lords next week, will give further education colleges the opportunity to apply to award their own foundation degrees, which at present have to be validated by universities.

Is this good news? The Government thinks so. It has hailed the move as the means to ensure that more students benefit from the "opportunities created by foundation degrees".

Clearly, the hope is that this will help the Government meet its target for 50 per cent of young people to participate in higher education by increasing the uptake of foundation degrees.

I am less optimistic. Of course, as president of Universities UK - the organisation that represents the heads of the country's universities - I would say that, wouldn't I? Until now, universities have been the only institutions permitted to award a "degree". Now they will face competition from colleges.

But leaving aside self-interest, I believe there is genuine cause to be concerned about the impact this measure will have on efforts to widen participation, on progression to higher education and on the health of foundation degrees themselves.

They are relatively new qualifications. In the past five years, universities have worked hard with employers and further education colleges to establish the degree's reputation with employers and prospective students. Substantial progress has been made. This year, some 48,000 students are on foundation-degree programmes, double last year's number and evidence of a rapid growth from the 4,500 who enrolled in 2001-02 when they were launched.

But these are early days for foundation degrees; allowing colleges to award them risks destabilising the process of embedding the qualification with potential students and employers just as good progress is being made.

My concern is that if foundation degrees lose their association with universities, demand from employers and students may be stifled rather than encouraged. Their status as sub-degrees - which is how they are regarded in the European framework - will be emphasised. And students who take them will be competing for employment in the global market.

Meanwhile, universities that now offer foundation degrees may cease to do so - especially where courses are delivered in partnership with further education colleges. After all, why would a university continue to support the development of a qualification in an institution that may be about to become its direct competitor?

Over the past few years, many universities have worked hard to build collaborative links with colleges. Through Lifelong Learning Networks, education providers have begun to work together to create ladders of progression for students who might not otherwise consider entering higher education. Many of those who benefit from these arrangements are drawn from the workforce - people who missed out on higher level study the first time round. Collaborative delivery of foundation degrees has been an important catalyst for these partnerships. And they are working. Fifty-nine per cent of foundation-degree graduates go on to further study - either full time or in combination with work.

The Government risks breaking these links and undermining the many and effective partnerships that have been built up by considerable expenditure of time, effort and resources. Universities that now ensure that the foundation degrees they offer and validate dovetail with honours-level courses will have less incentive to ensure that there are genuine progression routes for students on courses delivered by further education colleges.

Meanwhile, the move may encourage "mission drift" in colleges, which would not be in the best interests of the education system as a whole.

I do not believe that the potential consequences of the measures in the Further Education and Training Bill have been considered adequately. The Government is determined to press ahead, but I hope that it will at least give serious thought to measures it might take alongside this Bill to ensure that the reputation and appeal of the foundation degree is preserved.

The Government must take seriously the need to continue demonstrating that these are high-quality programmes so as to secure the continued trust and confidence of potential students, employers and the institutions that are to deliver them.

Drummond Bone is president of Universities UK.

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