Forget dreaming spires and face up to reality

June 29, 2001

For the foundation degree to thrive, the government must identify its target audience, insists Henry Seaton.

Was the foundation degree a Blairite "good idea" drawn up in front of a late evening parlour fire? Whatever the mythology surrounding its magical appearance, this sub-degree qualification follows a familiar fashion in higher education "innovation".

Faced with coaxing new learners to sign up to its inclusive agenda while clarifying progression routes littered with the unsold remnants of good ideas past, the government has thrown yet another sub-degree qualification into the market place.

Foundation degrees may survive but will they thrive? Only if the government reviews the flawed thinking that everyone wants a degree and that a designer label will do the trick.

The government must free itself and the sector from the tyranny of notions of dreaming spires. It must provide learning that is relevant for those who do not want a degree per se , for whom the need to learn is second to the wish to earn. These people will want to dip in and out of qualifications as their career paths dictate. It is unlikely that many will want to progress to a full honours degree. Professional body awards are likely to be preferred. Pilot programmes funded by the Department for Education and Skills, to be launched in September, show some of the innovation required to make learning relevant and could break the mould for those who cannot or do not want to fit it.

But there is a need to clarify the way forward. In a distinctly British manner, some institutions are seizing the marketing opportunity the foundation-degree brand represents, turning the initiative into little more than a seedy re-labelling exercise, while the pilot consortia have yet to get their wares to market. These consortia, the champions of the "real" foundation degree to be unveiled in autumn, are being denuded of the protection that a kitemarked foundation degree would have provided but that the then Department for Education and Employment refused, perversely, to supply. If the degree is to coax the 20-somethings back into education, a number of adjustments are necessary.

Parity of status among the providers is key. Further education, which will be the home for many foundation degree programmes, is seen as a sweat-shop operation, foraging for funding crumbs. Yet further education colleges have the experience and success in supporting non-traditional and vocational learners and are in tune with demand for higher education at a local level. Yet the burden of prejudice still dogs further education. Should the sector continue to gain its funding second hand, with the strategic responsibility for offering and running the new degrees also in the hands of higher education institutions, then it may well be the foundation degree that will not sell rather than its rival, the Higher National Diploma/Certificate.

Colleges running the foundation degree must be freed from having to provide pathways specific to a single higher education institution. Many in the higher education sector are looking at innovation in the curriculum, but as things stand the foundation-degree framework provides a comfort zone for those more interested in safeguarding rather than reviewing the relevance of their programmes for a new clientele.

The government must provide a way for colleges to validate foundation-degree programmes without having to seek a higher education institution as a franchise partner. Edexcel was well placed to provide this function but it has been sidelined. Instead, some higher education institutions are offering their services. This is to be welcomed but this independent awarding status needs to be part of a strategy, not a series of ad hoc arrangements. Regional and sub-regional progression or credit frameworks are needed. Students could then pursue learning as it suits them. Colleges could work with and map a particular foundation degree against the offer of a number of higher education institutions and other awarding bodies. This would open up the possibilities for students, not limit them, and would make the qualification match the overall design of the government's inclusive project.

If not reviewed, the marketing opportunity the foundation degree presents will be too tempting for some higher education institutions and colleges to resist, bastardising further the DFEE blueprint. To achieve true growth rather than simply putting higher national students in foundation degree gowns, the government needs to respect the diverse agenda of the higher education learners it courts and the further education sector that currently serves many of those learners. Otherwise, the foundation degree may mark another failed sales pitch and leave more unsold merchandise on the widening participation stall.

Henry Seaton is higher education manager at Solihull College.

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