Foundation plan misses target

June 20, 2003

Foundation degrees will not be the key to reaching the government's targets for higher education, according to research seen by The THES . Instead, some 250,000 traditional full-time undergraduate places will be needed to meet the growing demand for higher education.

The research, by Libby Aston of the Higher Education Policy Institute, warns government that demand, not supply, determines how many young people enter higher education.

The report takes the same approach as an earlier analysis of supply and demand that demonstrated how the established universities were absorbing the growth in students at the expense of new universities.

It notes that the number of people taking subdegree qualifications, such as Higher National Diplomas and Higher National Certificates, has plummeted in recent years. Even when the figures for foundation degrees are added, the pattern of decline persists.

A substantial proportion of additional student numbers allocated to foundation degrees was not filled. And, while it is difficult to assess the demand for foundation degrees as the qualification is so new, initial indications are that they are most popular with people aged over 30 years, who are excluded from the government target.

Foundation degrees are currently most successful in public-sector-driven subjects.

The report also cites forthcoming research by JM Consulting showing the number of work-based higher education learners who are not doing foundation degrees to be "extremely small".

Demand for higher education was flat from 1994 onwards, according to a new and more accurate measure of participation devised by staff at the Higher Education Funding Council for England. However, there are signs that participation began to increase in 2000 and 2001, the last years for which data are available.

There has been no change, over the six years from 1996, in the type of higher education demanded by different age groups. Mature students tend to study part time, while the vast majority of young students still study full time.

Similarly, over the same period, the ratio of entrants to full-time undergraduate courses with academic, vocational or other qualifications has remained static. Most of the growth has been in young full-time undergraduates. The increase is due to an expansion in the number of school-leavers and also indicates that drop-out rates have fallen.

In future years, performance at A level is also expected to improve following reforms to the 16 to 19 qualification structure. In particular, these mean that all students taking the new qualifications are encouraged to take four AS levels in their first year.

All students who pass these exams are automatically qualified for university entrance at institutions that view an AS level as equivalent to half an A level. This will create further demand from young people with university entrance qualifications.

Moreover, some 50 per cent of HND students go on to a full degree. A similar number could be expected to want to progress from foundation degrees.

The report notes that government targets have had a limited impact on demand for higher education, both in terms of the total number of students and in terms of the type of higher education demanded.

In the early 1990s, growth was significantly higher than government projections. However, for all but one of the past six years, the maximum student number has been undershot.

Since 1999, when the government set the target for 50 per cent of young people to have experienced higher education by 2010, the number of additional students has borne little relation to the government's plans.

It concludes: "Arguably, if no other places are made available then students are obliged to take whatever mode or level or type of higher education places are provided at whatever institution they are made available. However, recent history demonstrates that this has not been the case. Either additional places were made available by the higher education institutions at the mode and level demanded by the students, or the students chose not to enter higher education at all.

"Either way, this experience suggests that demand for higher education is not elastic in this way. There are important lessons here for the future if we wish to try and steer demand: the supply of places does not dictate the demand for higher education," the reports says.

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