Overhaul plan for foundations

May 28, 2004

Government accused of 'mission drift' in reshaping flagship degree. Tony Tysome writes

Government advisers are considering a radical reshaping of the government's flagship two-year foundation degree - a key element of the expansion plans for higher education - amid accusations that the proposed changes undermine the rationale behind the qualifications.

New "general foundation degrees" that would relax requirements for a work-based element in the qualification are being considered by a government-appointed task force.

The degrees would cover broader occupational areas, and the liberal arts may be introduced. They would also include more lenient rules about the need for students to spend time in the workplace as part of their course.

The move - designed to give universities more "elbowroom" to develop foundation degrees and boost student numbers - has been proposed by David Robertson, a member of the task force, who is preparing an evaluation of foundation degrees for the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

But Richard Brown, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, condemned the plans as a "cop-out" that threatened to undermine the original purpose of foundation degrees, which was to engage employers in the design and delivery of courses.

He said: "It would be disastrous for the future of foundation degrees if the work-based element became watered down. I am sorry if it makes it difficult for universities, but if they are finding it so hard then they should leave the further education colleges to get on with it."

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said the proposals were "another example of mission drift in the government's skills agenda".

Mr Willis added: "We should not be pandering yet again to the universities, who see expansion only in terms of balancing their books."

College heads warned that the proposed changes would allow universities to dominate the foundation-degree market and would water down the employer links that are an indispensable part of the qualification.

Susan Hayday, higher education officer for the Association of Colleges, said: "The nature of the qualification should not be changed just because one set of providers is having difficulty in meeting its requirements."

Professor Robertson, head of higher education policy development at Liverpool John Moores University, told The Times Higher that his ideas had been "warmly received" by the task force, which is due to report to ministers on its own review of the qualification in the summer.

He argues that the Quality Assurance Agency regulations, which stipulate that the foundation degree students must spend some time being assessed in the workplace, are hampering efforts to get more courses off the ground.

Universities in particular are struggling to secure work placements with local employers. Professor Robertson suggests that to overcome the problem institutions should be allowed to simulate the work environment in the classroom and to produce work-related problems for students to solve that could be verified and validated by employers.

Professor Robertson said: "Unless we allow universities more elbowroom to define what constitutes the work-related element, we will end up restricting development of the foundation degree."

Under his proposals, broader general foundation degrees would be introduced that would not be tied to particular employers or groups of employers, to cater for students who want to be mobile within the labour market rather than narrowly focused on one job.

This new generation of qualifications could be developed in areas such as financial management, business studies, law or even art, design and music, according to Professor Robertson.

He said: "The point is not to weaken the labour market connection but rather to broaden it and make it more diverse.

"Universities need to have the flexibility to design foundation degrees in ways that suit different student markets."


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