Government plans to expand higher education through two-year foundation degrees received a double blow this week as employers and funding chiefs raised substantial concerns about the qualification.
The Confederation of British Industry indicated its members were unconvinced that the foundation degree was needed or that it was likely to be popular among employers or students.
A draft summary of responses from 250 firms to a CBI survey suggests that the government is being too hasty in its plans to introduce the qualification by autumn 2001, with a target initial take-up of 9,000 full-time students and 23,600 part-timers.
The findings, which are subject to consultation but are likely to form part of the CBI's response to the proposals, emerged as the Higher Education Funding Council for England called for foundation degrees to be put on hold until student and employer demand was properly evaluated.
In response to the Department for Education and Employment's consultation on foundation degrees, Hefce echoed the CBI's view that there was no evidence of demand for the qualification: "The foundation degree is being introduced against a background of declining higher national diploma recruitment and without prior market testing.
"The council strongly recommends some attempt to evaluate student and employer demand for the foundation degree before any major growth is channelled through this qualification route."
The government wants foundation degrees to play a significant role in the expansion of higher education. It envisages more than three-quarters of new resources going into expansion at this level.
The CBI said that while it supported in principle the idea of a vocationally oriented two-year higher education qualification, the proposals had to overcome significant obstacles. These include doubts among employers that there was a greater need in industry for more employees holding sub-degree qualifications rather than more with higher- level qualifications; a suspicion that most students will continue to spend their money on an honours degree; and concerns that the foundation degree will further complicate the sub-degree qualifications jungle.
The survey also raised worries that institutions would be tempted to leave the development of key skills, such as team-working and communication, to foundation-degree programmes.
A spokesman said: "There is a lack of clarity in the proposals. It would be a miracle if this degree could do all that is being asked of it. We do not see the justification for expanding in this area."
Hefce also supports the idea of a foundation degree, but says specific conditions must be met. There must be sufficient demand from students to undertake the qualification, "which in turn depends on demand from employers for holders of the degree".
In its report, Hefce identifies potential problems with quality. "Great care will be needed with branding the qualification a degree. The English honours degree is already short by international standards and there must be no suggestion that it can be reduced further," it says. "The council supports the proposal for higher education institutions to award foundation degrees. However, it notes that there is a risk that this model might reinforce the tendency towards variable content and standards."
The report warns: "There is a risk that perceptions of the value of the degree will be affected by its delivery predominantly in further education colleges."
Under the DFEE's plans, universities would award foundation degrees. At present, two-year higher national diplomas and higher national certificates are awarded centrally.
The DFEE's plans include "guaranteed arrangements for articulation and progression to first-degree courses. Our expectation is that foundation degrees would be designed in such a way that students could progress on to an honours degree with only one-and-a-third extra years of study."
But the diversity of the sector means that people holding foundation degrees from one institution might face difficulties trying to upgrade the qualification at a different institution.
"It is important to recognise that students learn at different rates and attain different standards. The acceptance of an individual foundation-degree graduate on an honours degree programme and the duration of study needed to complete the honours degree, can only be an academic, not an administrative judgement," Hefce concludes.
Andy Powell, chief executive of the National Training Organisations' National Council, said that foundation degrees would fail unless industry has as much say as academe in their design.
Mr Powell said that industries differed in the qualifications they regarded as standard. In some, HNDs are highly valued, while in others degrees are the norm. Careful consideration would have to be given to the positioning of foundations to avoid them being pointless, Mr Powell said.