Learners on foundation degrees at Teesside University won't stand for airy-fairy talk and have amazed tutors with their dedication. Tony Tysome reports.
Foundation degrees are still a long way from fulfilling ministers'
expectations of bringing a flood of students from non-traditional backgrounds into higher education. At the most recent count, there were just 8,760 foundation degree students on courses provided by higher education institutions in 2000-2003 - a drop in the ocean compared with more than 1 million on first-degree programmes.
But despite this fledgling status, the flagship qualification appears to be having a disproportionate impact on teaching methods, course design and the way lecturers handle the needs and expectations of students who are holding down a job while studying.
At Teesside University, which joined the first wave of institutions to run foundation degree courses three years ago, lecturers have been taken aback by some of the differences between foundation degree and honours degree students. One of the more refreshing changes is the sheer level of enthusiasm and commitment of those on foundation degree courses.
Maura Banim, principal lecturer in health and social care, who has taught on both foundation degree and honours degree programmes, confesses: "I have never had such a hard-working group of students in my life as those studying for foundation degrees."
Dave Pritchard, principal lecturer in chemical engineering, agrees. He explains: "Their whole level of commitment is incredible. That is because they are already in work and have decided this is a priority, and in many cases it will be a career-enhancing experience."
Though this is obviously very positive, it brings with it some significant teaching challenges.
Lecturers have found themselves in the novel position of having to rein in their students' enthusiasm to prevent them from working themselves into the ground. Banim says: "It would be quite normal for a lecturer to ask students to read around a topic and make a few notes. But I find with foundation degree students you have to say: read three books and make a page of notes - otherwise they go through every book in the library on the subject and produce reams of notes.
"The reason is, they are not coming straight from doing A levels, and they do not know what is expected of them. If I just said go and find something out, they would devote every waking hour to it. I have to say: just spend two hours on it."
Pritchard says these "workaholic" tendencies can give cause for concern when dealing with students who are holding down a demanding job.
"Some of them come in to study having just done a 12-hour shift. Sometimes we have to ask them if they are overdoing it," he says.
Foundation degree students' jobs also influence the way they approach their studies and ultimately the way their courses are taught. They are much more focused on the practical application of what they are learning, sometimes to the extent that they "switch off" if lectures concentrate solely on theoretical material.
Banim says: "You have to keep linking the theory to the practical, because they want to know how it will improve their performance at work. You have to understand what they are doing at work so that you can give them relevant examples. That is why most of our lecturers go around the hospitals to see what they are doing in their jobs. If we didn't do that, the students would quickly switch off."
John Cooper, principal lecturer at Staffordshire University, who teaches on a project management foundation degree, says this characteristic distinguishes foundation degree students from their peers on other vocational courses as well as those on honours degree programmes.
"Even on HND programmes there has not been this emphasis on thinking so much about what actually goes on in the workplace. That makes teaching foundation degree students more challenging, because they are more likely to question you if things are done differently in their organisation," he says.
Pritchard says lecturers have discovered that foundation degree students have a no-nonsense outlook and will quickly pick them up on vague, opaque or irrelevant information.
"The one thing they will not take is any bull****. You can advise them, but you must never patronise them. They will not hesitate to tell you if they don't understand you," he says.
Banim says this is often a good experience for academics as it means they have to explain things in jargon-free language.
"Usually in academia, the more airy-fairy your language, the more respect you get. But these students just want you to talk about things in a straightforward way," she says.