New government figures show that foundation degrees are failing to attract more full-time students into higher education, it was claimed this week.
The figures suggest that rather than attracting more students, the rise in the number of applications for foundation degrees between 2001 and 2003 "substituted" for a decline in higher national diploma applications.
Chris Grayling, Conservative Higher Education Spokesman, said the figures cast doubt on ministerial claims that foundation degrees would widen participation and help the government hit its target of drawing 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education by 2010.
"It looks like their claims that foundation degrees are having a big impact in the sector are more spin than substance," Mr Grayling said.
Qualifications agency Edexcel agreed that there had been a "clear movement" from HND courses to foundation degrees. Rick Firth, BTec director at Edexcel, said: "There is concern that since registrations for sub-degree higher education are falling, the increase in foundation degree take-up is not growth but substitution and does not represent a widening of higher education participation."
The figures show that while foundation degree applications increased from 1,330 when courses were first offered in 2001 to 10,956 applications last year, the number of HND applications fell from 52,584 to 38,046.
The figures were revealed in a parliamentary answer to Mr Grayling from Alan Johnson, the Higher Education Minister, and were produced by the University and Colleges Admissions Service.
But the Department for Education and Skills said that the figures did not include numbers of part-time foundation degree students and pointed out that the declining trend in applications for HNDs began before 2001.
The DFES said that the number of full-time applications for foundation degrees had risen to 15,312 by March this year. This was an increase of 66 per cent on last year, and compared with a 24.7 per cent decline in HND applications over the same period.
A DFES spokeswoman added: "Although foundation degrees are still relatively new, they are developing in a broad range of subject and occupational areas - many of them not covered by HNDs (for example FDs for teaching assistants) - and are appealing to increasing numbers of students and employers alike."
Mr Johnson said last October that there was no intention to "phase out" HNDs, but the rising popularity of foundation degrees could make it "happen naturally".