Two-year foundation degrees will be the pinnacle of a more robust and expanded vocational education structure.
The target is to create about half a million foundation degree places in something like ten years. They will supersede higher national diplomas and certificates as the highest vocationally oriented qualification. The government has no plans to scrap HNDs and HNCs. It expects them to wither on the vine.
The new degrees are designed to be qualitatively different from HNDs and HNCs. The government has stressed that the foundation degrees are not a relaunch of national diplomas.
To underline this, the degrees will not be a national qualification. Edexcel sets the curricula nationally for BTEC, HNDs and HNCs and accredits them. Foundation degrees will be designed and validated by universities working in partnership with colleges and employers.
Entry qualifications will be of the standard expected for a bachelors degree course, according to the government. In practice this may mean two A levels or the vocational equivalents. Foundation students will be charged the same for tuition as undergraduates on a bachelors course. They will have access to student loans.
Government hopes that the rigorous standards and strong vocational element will ensure their attraction to learners and employers. Though the government admits it will have to sell them. It is hoped foundation graduates will command higher salaries.
The degrees are designed to be stepping stones to an honours degree, which would take a further four terms or one-and-a-third academic years. People may be able to do their third of a year as a summer school in between the completion of their foundation and start of a their final full year.
The foundation degree will marry academic content with vocational experience. Some academics fear that the academic-vocation split will disadvantage foundation-degree graduates who go on to gain a traditional degree. They argue that the final year of a bachelors course is hard enough for undergraduates who have had two years of exclusively academic learning. Foundation degree holders may struggle with the academic content in the final year, they say.
No decisions have been made about the precise methods of delivery of the foundation degrees. The government is hoping that universities, colleges and industry will propose models. The government wants flexible ways of delivering the degrees. Employers would be expected to take part in designing and delivering the degrees.
One emerging model involves universities validating degrees for partner further education colleges, which would deliver them. The Open University is to head one such consortium and will validate degrees for 11 colleges, known in further education as mixed-economy colleges because they provide higher education.
Other consortia could be centred on universities on a regional and sub regional basis. There is scope for these consortia to be largely co-terminus with the 47 sub-regional learning and skills councils proposed in the learning and skills bill making its way through Parliament.
The councils, which will have significant private sector input, could work closely with the consortia to tailor foundation-degree provision to local economic needs. This promises flexibility and responsiveness far beyond the reach of HNDs and HNCs, which are tied to a national curriculum.
The money institutions will receive for providing foundation degrees is undecided. Questions are being asked as to whether "parity" with bachelor degrees will it extend to funding.
Ivor Crewe, vice-chancellor of Essex University, has been appointed chairman of a foundation-degree design group. The group will examine models proposed by universities, colleges and employers. It is unlikely that a single model will be applied across country given the government's desire for flexibility and responsiveness.