Poor report casts doubt on flagship initiative

January 13, 2006

One of the Government's key higher education policies was facing a setback this week as London South Bank University became the first of an expected series of institutions to have a foundation degree course branded a failure.

The quality watchdog reported this week that it had "no confidence" in the students' academic standards on South Bank's early-years foundation degrees for those working in childcare.

Two-year foundation degrees were launched by the Government as a new qualification in 2001. They were seen as key to plans to expand student numbers, widen access and offer more work-based higher education.

But Deian Hopkin, South Bank's vice-chancellor, revealed this week that his institution is the first of many that are about to have foundation degrees declared failing by the Quality Assurance Agency.

"We are aware that a number of universities have experienced similar outcomes from their reviews. This may raise some important issues about the way we look at foundation degrees," he said.

Universities UK said: "We are aware of a number of issues surrounding these reports and will be seeking a meeting to discuss them with the QAA."

In 2003, the QAA revealed that 12 per cent of foundation degrees inspected in a private review had failed.

South Bank's degree, which is taught by four partner colleges, including Lambeth and Lewisham colleges, began in 2003 and initially enrolled 59 students, who graduated last summer.

The QAA reviewers said the course did not have clear or robust arrangements for assessing students' achievement. The report says: "Scrutiny of students' work confirms the external examiner's comments on inconsistent and inappropriate marking in the colleges during the first year of operation". It adds that moves to address the problem were not yet "fully effective".

The report says that different markers in different colleges vary "in the attention that they pay to referencing, structure, spelling and grammar".

It also raises concerns that students at different colleges had different teaching contact hours, leading to "a lack of parity in the student experience".

Professor Hopkin said the university took the QAA's verdict seriously and had already acted to address the concerns.

But he noted that the course had not completed its first full cycle at the time of the review and that many concerns were about organisational issues brought by the complexity of the partnership with four colleges, an issue that had been addressed.

He said the fact that other universities had received similar judgments suggested that there were wider issues about how "these new types of degree, based on teaching in the workplace, outside the host university", are being judged by the QAA.

The agency said it could not comment on any of its unpublished reports, so it could not confirm or deny South Bank's assertion that more failures are to follow. But the QAA pointed to its recent overview report on the general trends emerging from 68 foundation degree reviews carried out in 2004-05.

This found that although there were problems with assessment methods in some cases, the qualifications are generally successful, "providing opportunities for students who had not previously considered studying at higher education level, and for employers through work-based learning".

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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