Further education college leaders say there is growing evidence that universities are preparing to "hijack" the foundation-degree agenda to secure the only cash available for expansion.
They say universities that stand to lose out through increasing competition for research funding are looking for fresh opportunities in teaching by "growing their own" foundation degrees, rather than developing them in partnership with further education. Colleges fear that if this trend continues, they will be squeezed out of the market and much of the work-oriented basis for the qualification will be lost.
Further education heads are anxiously awaiting a Higher Education Funding Council for England circular, due next month, that will determine the rules for funding development of the next generation of foundation degrees.
Susan Hayday, higher education officer for the Association of Colleges, said: "As far as we can see, although the rhetoric is that foundation degrees must be delivered in partnership with colleges, there is nothing to ensure that that is the case. There is nothing to stop a university developing its own foundation degrees simply to feed into its degree courses and to secure funding for expansion."
Lynn Parker, higher education consultant for Hull College and a member of the Quality Assurance Agency's foundation degrees benchmarking group, said it was "inevitable" that universities would try to exploit their dominant position in developing and delivering foundation degrees.
She said: "Many have already shifted their policy away from saying foundation degrees will be developed in colleges with support from the university to one where the university decides it is going to develop foundation degrees where it sees a gap in the market." She warned this could mean that the work-based nature of foundation degrees, which many universities find difficult to handle, could be jeopardised.
Colleges are also concerned that plans to provide them with an independent national validation service for foundation degrees through the proposed Foundation Degree Forward body might be another vehicle for universities to dominate the agenda. David Robertson, head of policy development at Liverpool John Moores University and a member of a government-backed task force that is drawing up a prospectus for foundation degrees, said that FDF would "not have the capacity nor the authority to validate foundation degrees itself".
Instead, it would "arrange validation using an unspecified authority residing in a cluster of universities comprising the Council of Validating Universities", he said. He added that, in the long run, FDF could still become a stepping stone towards creating a "council for national academic awards for further education".
The draft foundation degree prospectus says it is intended that FDF's validation service "will not be disruptive to existing partnerships but will offer supplementary opportunities for foundation degree development in contexts where this is otherwise proving difficult".
Foundation courses rated 'valuable and relevant'
Some of the first foundation degree graduates have told The THES how the new qualification has helped push their careers in new directions.
• Glenis Smith, one of 20 students who graduated this summer with an educational studies foundation degree run by Bishop Grosseteste College and validated by Leicester University, said the course was tough but "highly relevant" to her work as a teaching assistant at Glenbrook Primary School in Nottingham.
She said: "It's not like being on a course where you come away wondering whether what you have been taught will be of any use. The school also said it felt it was reaping the benefits of the work-based activities on my course."
Ms Smith, who was voted teaching assistant of the year in the East Midlands last year, now plans to join most of her fellow teaching assistant students in progressing to a BA in professional studies in education developed by the university specifically to allow foundation degree graduates to "top up" to a full degree.
• Richard Gorman, who has graduated with a foundation degree in computer games production at St Helen's College, Liverpool, is setting up a computer games company called Aztecstudios.com and has developed a new mobile phone game.
"Initially I was apprehensive about what a foundation degree meant, but once I got into the course I could understand its value. I feel it has served me very well," he said.
Julie Hargreaves, higher education development manager at St Helen's College, said rates of progression to a full degree among the college's 50 foundation-degree graduates varied between subjects. All business and management foundation graduates were going on to do a full degree, but only a fifth of computer games graduates.
Nationally, progression figures have yet to be published. About 2,500 foundation degree students were due to graduate this summer.