Ministers should consider creating a two-tier system of foundation degrees by allowing exam boards to award the qualification as well as universities, according to a report published this week.
The report of a Government-appointed task force gives an upbeat verdict on the standing of foundation degrees with students, employers, colleges and universities. It suggests that the Government and the Higher Education Funding Council for England should work towards a fourfold increase in foundation-degree places by the end of the decade and should aim to fund 100,000 places by 2010.
Foundation degrees should continue to attract higher funding per student than other undergraduate courses to reflect the extra costs involved in developing courses and offering students learning support, the report adds.
It warns that universities can be the dominant partner in arrangements with colleges and advises Hefce to offer colleges more direct funding for foundation degrees to help create "genuine partnerships" and give them a better bargaining position over validation and course design.
But in a move that could raise doubts over foundation degrees' standing as a higher education qualification, the task force recommends that ministers consider allowing exam boards to award degrees for some part-time courses and that they consider running a "pilot experiment".
According to the report, while restricting the award of degrees to higher education is "seen to provide a guarantee of quality in the early years", no other intermediate qualification - such as the higher national diploma or higher national certificate - is "similarly restricted".
It adds that some part-time courses may be well suited to being awarded by exam boards. "It may well be that there are some foundation degrees, in subject areas where no honours degrees exist, where the primary object is workforce development rather than progression (to an honours degree).
"Students on these foundation degrees might see them as an end qualification in their own right," it says.
Looking ahead to the introduction of variable tuition fees in 2006, the task force urges the Government not to set a statutory fee for foundation degrees and to allow institutions to set their own charges.
But it warns that institutions that set too low a fee for a foundation degree "might be misinterpreted as reflecting lower quality and (be seen as) an indication of lack of confidence in the degree rather than cost-effectiveness".
Employers are urged to offer more financial support to employees who sit foundation degrees part time and provide bursaries to full-time students.
Leslie Wagner, chairman of the task force of academics and employers, told The Times Higher : "Foundation degrees have made a good start in transforming vocational education, but within that context there are lessons to be learnt and challenges to be met.
"The major challenges are how we engage employers to the fullest extent and, particularly, integrate learning from work with learning from study, and also how universities and colleges can work in genuine partnership to deliver the courses.
"While these are general issues in higher education, they come into focus with foundation degrees where they are such a central part of the delivery."
Alan Johnson, the Higher Education Minister, said he was delighted with "such a positive reaction" to foundation degrees.
"We are determined to build on this initial success, and we have already signalled in our five-year strategy that we expect the expansion of foundation degrees to continue," he said.
"The exact growth will be determined by future spending reviews, but we have always made clear that foundation degrees will be central to the expansion of higher education."
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