Quality watchdogs are to raise serious questions about the standard of foundation degrees, casting doubt on the government's flagship higher education expansion policy.
After the first-ever evaluation of the fledgling two-year vocational courses, the Quality Assurance Agency will next month publish a report that says 12 per cent are failing.
In the special report seen by The THES that summarises the findings of the confidentialinspections of 33 courses, the QAA says:
- It has "no confidence" in the quality of four out of the 33 courses (12 per cent)
- "Many" students are not obtaining "higher-level, intellectual, analytical and reflective" skills
- Two-thirds of courses are not making clear the opportunities for students to progress to full-degree courses
- More than half the courses need improvements in the development and assessment of students' knowledge
- Half the courses need "significant development of work-based learning"
- Only a "few" courses fully included employers in running the programmes
- There are problems with underqualified teaching staff and inadequate facilities.
Inspectors will highlight areas of good practice and will say "the majority of providers were successfully offering programmes of the required standard and quality".
But the findings will come as a blow to ministers, two weeks after they announced an extra 10,000 foundation-degree places and launched an advertising push for the courses.
The 33 courses inspected by the QAA during 2003 cover 3,100 students - about a third of those enrolled on foundation degrees at the time.
The latest figures show that acceptances on to full-time foundation degrees increased by 75 per cent to 5,155 this year. The government hopes student numbers will hit 50,000 by 2005-06.
The report does not detail why four of the courses were found to be failing but it says that in three cases there was a "no-confidence" judgement in both emerging standards and learning opportunities for students.
In a QAA newsletter this week, the agency's director of review, Stephen Jackson, says it has raised "some general concerns".
He says links between further and higher education were underdeveloped, which is particularly worrying as "the requirement is for foundation degrees to progress on to honours programmes".
"A second concern is the involvement of employers. Foundation degrees should be a partnership between educational providers and employers. In some cases, the direct involvement of employers in the design and development of the curriculum and delivering the programmes is quite limited," he says. "Work-based learning was also underdeveloped in some programmes. Foundation degrees should be work-focused awards or work-based learning. Some included work experience, but it's not the same as having part of the curriculum delivered and assessed through the workplace."
Alan Smithers, professor of education at Liverpool University, said: "If the foundation degree is seen as a way of getting the less brainy into university, we won't get skilled people into occupations where they are needed."
David Robertson, professor of higher education at Liverpool John Moores University, widely seen as the architect of the foundation degree, has been commissioned by the government to undertake a full evaluation of the qualification. He said he had seen most of the QAA's confidential reports on the courses and said there was no cause for alarm.
He said: "We note that the QAA has identified some problems in four cases, but we believe they are of a procedural nature."
He said that if the failings were shown to be procedural, it reflected universities' quality assurance procedures and should not been seen as a failing in the qualification per se .
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "We welcome the report. It finds confidence in the emerging academic standards and quality of learning opportunities in 88 per cent of the foundation degrees reviewed. That is good news.
"It also confirms that one of the key strengths of the new qualification is the effective involvement of employers in the design and content of the courses.
"It is absurd to suggest that early problems mean the whole system is failing. We are absolutely certain that foundation degrees are a quality higher education alternative that will go from strength to strength."
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