The foundation degree is a hit, writes Henry Seaton, but it is still tainted by the nomenclature of further and higher education.
"It'll be alright; don't ask me how; it just will," predict Pinter's players desperately at the lowest point in rehearsals in Shakespeare in Love. And so it has turned out with the pilot foundation degrees.
The challenge of short deadlines and vague, restrictive guidelines, compounded by inadequate national advertising, have been overcome, for which planners, teachers and learners deserve applause. Notable successes among the 69 original programmes offered by the 70 further education colleges and 21 higher education institutes have been, predictably perhaps, in areas where there has been no obvious progression route or conflict with existing higher national diploma/certificate programmes, or where there has been a specific industrial need. Equally predictable has been the lukewarm response of small and medium-sized enterprises and employees in low-wage industries that have historically not invested in training.
So, with 4,000 students enrolled in 2001, 12,000 in 2002 and a reported 150 per cent increase to 5,000 for applications for 2003-04, it looks as though the new foundation degree will be around for some time to come, irrespective of the outcome of the Quality Assurance Agency's review of the pilots.
Yet this is only a toe-hold, given that total full-time higher education applications will exceed 340,000. The government will make full-time numbers grow, albeit through rebadging the HND.
In truth, if foundation degrees are to thrive, not just survive, the sector must reach new markets. It must tackle the real challenge of meeting the needs of those in or returning to employment. The tip of this iceberg is visible in the large number of part-time and mature students recruited to the pilots, a surprise only to those unfamiliar with the HNC. It indicates where growth could and should occur, and exposes the narrowness of the government's thinking on foundation degrees. An 18-30 target group? Eighteen to 70 would be a better bet.
The critical issue, however, is whether this huge pool of potential learners knows or cares what the post-compulsory sector as a whole, or the foundation degree in particular, can offer. A national campaign, making clear the opportunities and benefits to potential learners of the qualification, needs to be the top priority of the new task group on foundation degrees. This should form part of a broader, bolder campaign by the Department for Education and Skills that projects the post-compulsory sector as a 21st-century service for citizens of all ages. Rebranding would also sideline the vocational and academic labels that ghettoise certain types of learning and create the class-riddled otherness of HEin FE.
With the divisive, confusing and, for many, intimidating, nomenclature of further and higher education swept away, foundation degree providers can make a real contribution to the Success for All learning ladder. Who knows, if the DFES can convince the public of the benefits of "learn to earn", the foundation degree might just play to a full house yet.
Henry Seaton is director of quality and higher education at Solihull College and will take up the post of deputy principal at Moulton College, Northampton, from September 1.