We now have to build on our strong foundations

July 9, 2004

Foundation degrees have been in existence for only three years and yet they are already changing the landscape of higher education.

Some 25,000 students are enrolled on about 800 courses at 100 universities and colleges. Applications for next year are up by 50 per cent. There is every indication that the extra 10,000 places allocated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England will be exceeded as institutions use some of their other numbers to meet this growing demand.

The Government's expectation that there will be 50,000 students on foundation degrees in 2005-06 is likely to be realised.

This was by no means a foregone conclusion and the degree was given a generally sceptical reception. That scepticism persists in some quarters, fuelled by fear and misunderstanding. It is time to tackle the sceptics.

There is undoubtedly a need for a two-year qualification. Labour-market analysis shows a growing demand for occupations that require a higher education qualification, particularly in the associate professional areas.

While there is nothing particularly wrong with the Higher National Diploma, numbers of enrolments have been falling for a decade. The HND is largely restricted to engineering, technology and business, with less visibility in the newer occupational areas. It is a solid but unexciting brand that is not attracting the demand that is required to meet future needs.

Why is it called a foundation degree when it is not a degree? The aim is to signal that this is a genuinely new qualification, not a revamp of something else. Its place in the hierarchy of qualifications is well established and understood. Only in status-conscious England is it perceived as a problem. The two-year associate degree has existed for decades in the US alongside the four-year honours degree.

Last year, the Quality Assurance Agency undertook a review of the early foundation degrees, covering 33 programmes and 3,089 students. Its reviewers had confidence in the academic standards and the quality of learning opportunities in 30 of the programmes. Given the innovatory nature of the early foundation degrees, the uncharted waters they were entering and the haste with which they were developed, this is a satisfactory outcome. There is room for improvement and it is expected that a QAA review next year will show that this has occurred.

It is important to remember why the foundation degree is different. At its heart is a focus on work-based learning. Other qualifications provide work experience. The foundation degree builds in learning from this experience through reflection and assessment. Study-based and work-based learning are integrated. To deliver this requires partnership between higher and further education institutions, and with employers. Work-based learning and genuine partnership working are two of the trickiest things to deliver in higher education. They are part of what makes the foundation degree radical and exciting. There are already stunning examples of good practice. But it is fair to say that for others it is still a learning experience. However, that is the essence of innovation. There is every confidence that improvement will continue, to the benefit, not just of foundation degrees, but of higher education in general.

It is sometimes forgotten that about half the students on foundation degrees are part time, typically people in work seeking to upgrade their qualifications with the support of their employers. This is fundamentally important both to them and for the economy. The lack of suitable part-time routes to higher education qualifications has been evident for some time.

The speed with which employers, particularly in the public sector, are embracing foundation degrees in their workforce development plans augurs well for the future.

The honours degree has been the dominant qualification in higher education for much of the past century. To challenge its hegemony is a formidable task. Yet the foundation degree has begun the task well. The need is established, demand is beginning to develop, but challenges remain. These include getting funding, work-based learning, partnership working and employer engagement right.

The task force set up last year by the Department for Education and Skills will shortly report on how these challenges can best be met, so that foundation degrees can develop from a tender plant to become a growing and permanent part of the higher education landscape.

Leslie Wagner chairs the Higher Education Academy and the Foundation Degree Task Force.

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