What is all the fuss about foundation years? Are the recent front-page "revelations" about "universities for failures" any more than a new slant on the same old standards scandal that always surfaces, along with Rhodes Boyson, during the seasonal scramble for university places?
University entry through foundation years for students without A levels is apparently the target, but what follows is only too familiar. Foundation years, associated with the "new" universities and the "recent rapid expansion" of higher education provide the latest incontrovertible evidence that standards are falling and that some universities are "turning into little more than remedial institutions" by admitting those who are "not university material". Gillian Shephard, however, is taking all this seriously enough to initiate an inquiry into foundation years, but while we wait for this, what is the evidence so far ?
The story began with the findings of a Sunday Times survey of 39 "new" universities, which demonstrated that "at least nine" were admitting A-level failures, some of these through entry to foundation years. Only seven "old" universities were approached, none of whom offered places without A levels. The evidence is thus significantly statistically skewed from the start, but on the face of it what does it amount to? Thirty "new" universities and "at least" seven "old" universities are not admitting students without A levels. Hardly front page stuff.
But to get back to the foundation years and the revelations. Far from being "unnoticed by the Government and central authorities" foundation years have been actively encouraged by Government, initially as a means of increasing take-up for hard-to-fill science and engineering places. Moreover, a report published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in January 1995 has already taken a close look at foundation years. It explains that most foundation years are preparatory rather than conversion programmes (for which demand was very limited); that more than half of them are in further education colleges, not in universities; and that the most popular subjects are business and management, followed by engineering and technology.
The report also notes, interestingly in view of this year's allegations, that even in 1992, 77 per cent of foundation-year students were part-time not full-time and, as a subsequent Association for Colleges survey makes clear, there has been a significant increase in the part-time percentage since then. Foundation years can seldom, therefore, be encouraging universities to take on unsuitable applicants as a means of avoiding penalties for unfilled places, because such penalties do not apply to unfilled part-time places. What then is the attraction of foundation years, for applicants and institutions? In each case it is to do with the curriculum.
Foundation years, unlike access courses, are required by the Department for Education and Employment to be an integral part of the degree programme. Thus foundation-year students follow a curriculum which is of direct relevance to the next stage of their degree programme and if successful, they will proceed directly on to the next year of the degree. This makes foundation years probably less wasteful than access courses, where successful students may still find difficulty in obtaining a university place, despite a year's intensive preparation.
The current foundation year witch-hunt is about who gets in and with what qualifications. Those accepted on to a foundation year would not require qualifications equivalent to those applying directly for the first year of a degree course. There would be no sense in that case in their taking an additional year. Foundation years are for those who have the potential to succeed on a degree course, but who may not have the normal qualifications for entry. A lack of A levels or of high A-level grades is not always perceived as an indication of the absence of this potential. Institutions are aware that A levels are not a particularly reliable predictor of final-degree performance, and their reform has been delayed for a decade, with a consequent loss of confidence. Moreover, the daunting non-completion rate of this year's new "vocational A levels" has disappointed those who anticipated an increased demand from applicants with GNVQs.
Foundation-year students are usually mature applicants selected for their skills, experience and commitment. There is no evidence of a high drop-out or failure rate. This year's claims that in isolated cases, school leavers are also being admitted, is unlikely to become a general trend, particularly given the downturn in staying-on rates for the first time in a decade. However, those with a determination to qualify for a degree may find a part-time foundation year, probably based at their local further education college, more relevant and less wasteful than A level retakes at the same institution.
Everyone's priority must of course be with the quality of the course that is being provided. We would all agree with Gillian Shephard's concern to "maintain higher education's reputation for excellence", but we must avoid the naive tendency to judge this by intake rather than output. Quality assurance for foundation years is monitored by the Higher Education Quality Council. Indeed many foundation years are subject to a double monitoring process, both through the normal quality processes for degree courses and, where they are delivered in conjunction with further education colleges, as part of higher education institutions' collaborative links audit. The minister has now asked the Higher Education Quality Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for England to investigate foundation years, but it is already their responsibility to safeguard the quality of these, as of other forms of provision, and there has been no evidence that they represent any particular threat to standards.
What is the purpose then of all this fuss about foundation years ? What it is doing is diverting attention from the real problems affecting university entry - that is, the urgent need to reform A levels, the apparently over-hasty launch of GNVQs, the effect of the student financial crisis on university applications, and the annual chaos of clearing which allows neither universities nor applicants time to give proper consideration to admissions. It is thus very evident that the great foundation-year scandal is not so much a scandal as a smokescreen, and so far it would seem a very successful one.
Maggie Woodrow is director of access education services at the University of North London. The views expressed are her own.