The Quality Assurance Agency this week caved in to pressure from the higher education sector and is to rethink its national qualifications framework.
Criticism from groups representing university heads and foundation degree designers has forced the QAA to drop one of the levels of undergraduate qualifications in its framework and reset the implementation date.
The blueprint, Qualifications Framework for Higher Education, was published earlier this year. It set out the hierarchy and naming of all qualifications, including foundation degrees. There were to be four categories, or levels, of qualification: level one for certificates of higher education; level two for higher national diploma-level qualifications; level three for the new foundation degree and ordinary degrees; and level four for honours degrees.
But there was a chorus of disapproval from universities when the blueprint went out to consultation. Most universities work to a three-level model.
The revised framework, announced at a qualifications conference in London on Tuesday, has levels two and three merged. Two further levels in the revised framework will cover postgraduate degrees: level four for masters, postgraduate certificates and diplomas and level five for doctorates. Only qualifications at levels two, three, four or five can be called "degree".
QAA chief executive John Randall said: "We had to strike a balance and decide what was most workable. We were best able to do this with three levels."
David Young, policy adviser at the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said: "We are very pleased that the QAA announced it would be operating with three undergraduate levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is what institutions overwhelmingly said they wanted in the recent consultation."
But Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster and a member of the government's foundation degree design group, was disappointed.
He said the consultation document did not present the case clearly enough. "The original model with four levels was not thought through enough. We are left with a large level two and there would be an advantage in having that as two levels. But the QAA has listened to the sector."
He said he expected level two to be split in the course of events. He added that a four-level structure would help universities move away from equating the level of study to the length of study, with increased numbers of students studying on a flexible basis.
The new framework will come into play in 2003-04. Universities will be expected to have made the necessary changes to their qualifications and course descriptors. The first students under the new framework will graduate later than the original 2006 target.