The uncertain future of foundation degrees

March 3, 2000

Something similar to David Blunkett's foundation degrees was tried years ago. Will it work this time? asks John Pratt

When David Blunkett announced the new two-year foundation degrees, we could be forgiven for experiencing a sense of deja vu. Just over years ago, a previous secretary of state did something very similar, announcing the creation of the two-year diploma in higher education.

The parallels are striking. These courses aim to fill an alleged gap in provision, as were those of 1972. Foundation degrees aim to meet the shortage of people with technician-level qualifications and to develop "the right blend" of skills that employers need. The 1972 white paper, Education: A Framework for Expansion, identified a gap in routes for school and college-leavers - the choice only of entering employment and studying part-time, or committing to a course lasting at least three years.

Only a limited range of two-year courses was available, all in specific vocational areas; not much has changed since. The 1972 white paper saw the new courses as a "critical element" in achieving greater flexibility in higher education. Mr Blunkett sees the foundation degree as a way to widen participation and progression in higher education and as offering students "breadth and flexibility" to respond to developments in the workplace.

Both proposals emphasise the need to secure the standards of the new courses; foundation degrees will be "academically rigorous"; the DipHE was to be "no less intellectually demanding" than the first two years of a degree course. There is visible concern that the new courses will be accepted in their own right, not, as the white paper put it, "a cheap substitute" for existing courses.

There are, however, differences between the proposals. Mr Blunkett is explicitly concerned with vocational aims. His first key element of the new courses is that they must be highly valued in the job market. He details the key skills and knowledge they will develop to enable graduates to "contribute their full potential in all sectors of the labour market, so meeting the needs of employers". The degrees are to be developed through collaboration between universities and colleges and employers; they will emphasise work experience.

The 1972 proposals, by contrast, were more liberal. Employers and employment get a mention only in the context of acceptability of the DipHE. There was no mention of their content, except that both general and specialised DipHE courses were to be available. Courses were to offer students opportunities to modify their programme as their interests and career plans unfolded.

What can the DipHE experience tell us about the prospects for foundation degrees? On the historical evidence the prospects are bleak. As Harold Silver noted, the DipHE "did not become a major feature of the higher education landscape" nor a clear alternative for large numbers of students. The universities hardly touched it, and in the polytechnics and colleges, the numbers on "free-standing" DipHE courses never reached more than about 4,000 (compared with more than 250,000 on first-degree courses in 1990).

One institution that did take the DipHE seriously was my own, the then North East London Polytechnic. It established a School for Independent Study that seized the chance to create a new form of higher education. More than 25 years before Mr Blunkett, it created a DipHE programme explicitly seeking to develop the kind of general transferable skills that are now to figure in foundation degrees. It had no formal syllabus. Students were required, with their tutors, to plan their programmes of study, setting out their knowledge and skills and learning objectives. They could use existing formal provision within the polytechnic or private study. They worked individually and in groups. Later the principle was extended to first degree and masters courses, and is still applied in postgraduate programmes at the University of East London.

The lesson of the DipHE experience is that two-year courses offering a qualification of less status than an honours degree will struggle for acceptance with students and employers alike. Calling them foundation degrees rather than diplomas is a start, but the stranglehold of traditional values is hard to defeat. A new qualification can be a valuable addition to the higher education portfolio, but only if institutions and individuals within them are given the freedom to develop them from first principles. Mr Blunkett will need to curb his familiar tendency to prescribe content, structure and assessment, and let originality flourish.

And who was the apparently liberal secretary of state who launched the failed DipHE? A Mrs Margaret Thatcher.

John Pratt is head of the centre for institutional studies at the University of East London.

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