Two-year degree gears up

February 6, 2004

Nearly 100 "off-the-peg" national Btec foundation degrees were launched this week by the degree-awarding body Edexcel.

The move was heralded as a key development in the creation of qualifications that meet employer demands for nationally recognised and standardised awards.

Rather than being put together by individual institutions, the Btec foundation degrees come with ready-made specifications designed to conform to national standards.

The first wave, ready for teaching this autumn, will be in ten subject areas: art and design, business, computing, construction, engineering, hospitality, land, performing arts, public services, and sport, fitness and exercise.

More are planned in media, early years, music and applied science for 2005 and 2006.

Edexcel said it would charge institutions that decide to use the new qualifications £475 per student. Validation partners - the universities of Greenwich and Northumbria - will get a share of the income.

But there was confusion over whether further education colleges that chose to run the courses would be eligible to charge top-up fees.

Edexcel's Btec director Rick Firth said he understood that this was a "grey area" because of the wording of the higher education bill, which refers to institutions charging fees rather than in reference to qualifications or courses.

But a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said there was no question of the bill preventing colleges from charging top-ups for the new foundation degrees as well as for any other higher education courses they ran.

David Robertson, professor of public policy and education at Liverpool John Moores University and a member of the government's foundation degree task force, said he was concerned that if colleges were able to charge top-up fees for foundation degrees it could skew the higher education market.

Professor Robertson, who was speaking at a foundation degrees conference in London on Tuesday, said: "If students are getting different facilities in further education, there are serious questions about whether they should be asked to pay the top whack in fees.

"On the other hand, if colleges charge less, that might begin to threaten certain parts of the honours degree market. One of the possible consequences is that universities will create more bridging courses to ensure a flow of foundation degree students on to their honours degrees."

Tony Dickson, deputy vice-chancellor at Northumbria, said the Edexcel foundation degrees would "provide a ready-made solution for many colleges to the problems of developing and assessing foundation degree courses to the necessary high-quality standards".

He added: "This partnership is an exciting venture, combining Edexcel with its history of providing internationally recognised vocational qualifications with Northumbria with its outstanding, employment-focused learning and teaching profile."

John Humphreys, pro vice-chancellor of Greenwich, said: "It was at the University of Greenwich that David Blunkett announced the creation of foundation degrees, so it is fitting that the university should play a key role in this initiative."

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