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Designed to please industry

Foundation degrees have got off to a difficult start. Stephen Hoare reports on what is being done to address the matter

THEY started as a damp squib, many have failed to recruit the student numbers hoped for, some are even running half empty. The government's new flagship qualification - the foundation degree - has been criticised as a hybrid that blurs boundaries between vocational and higher-level qualifications. It lacks widespread recognition among employers.

Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges, is hedging her bets. "I think it's probably a difficult one to call. It's like any new product: you're going to have to put the investment in up front if you are to reap the dividends."

Aimed at widening participation, foundation degrees combine academic content with vocational skills, and can be studied two years full-time or four years part-time. They are equivalent to an ordinary degree and can be topped up with an extra year's study to a full honours.

The target market is people who are uncertain about higher education and who would rather have a passport to a job. They are mainly mature students and adults in employment who have a wealth of practical experience and good basic skills but who lack the traditional requirements for university entrance.

But, equally, the Government is keen to see practically minded school-leavers opt for them as an alternative route through HE. Indeed, it may be essential if the Government is to reach its 2010 target of having half of all 19 to 30 year-olds participate in HE.

The degrees have been developed by consortia of FE colleges, higher education institutions and employers who have come together to design the content and teaching methods and secure university accreditation.

To date, around 130 colleges and universities from across Britain are involved. So, too, are companies as diverse as Carlton TV, KLM, Edwardian Radisson Hotels and Cisco Systems.

Whatever the eventual take-up of foundation degrees, one notable achievement has been to break down the universities' ivory tower approach to education, enabling them to work with FE colleges and extend opportunities to students from non-traditional and working backgrounds.

"Where relationships have existed between colleges and universities, these have been strengthened and deepened by the experience of developing a foundation degree," says Judith Norrington.

What the consortia have created are local, industry-relevant qualifications designed to meet employers' needs. To widen participation, foundation degrees have had to be flexible, often combining part-time or distance learning with work-based learning.

In the AOC's experience, innovation is the key to getting a foundation degree accepted. Margaret Lawson, the association's foundation degree officer, who has worked closely with colleges, is amazed at the demand.

"What has happened is that the original prototype degrees are now joined by a number of college degree courses supported by additional student number (ASN) bids." Colleges that have launched their own foundation degree are generally very pleased with closer links with employers and universities. Many are now looking to develop foundation degrees across the board to give them a competitive edge over other colleges. But there are concerns.

"There have been one or two cases where a college would have welcomed getting involved in a foundation degree but couldn't because the university wasn't interested," says Ms Norrington.

Edmund Wiggins, principal of Leeds College, offers a typical response. "We decided not to get involved because our validating university, Leeds, isn't involved."

Leeds College is already heavily geared towards higher education. Forty per cent of courses are HE, including HNDs. "We already have established links with employers on degree courses such as our HE certificate in art and design which students can upgrade to a BA (Hons) with further full or part-time study," he says.

Margaret Taylor, HE co-ordinator for Hereward College, is one of many FE college managers who are waiting on the sidelines, unsure about whether foundation degrees offer any benefits. "Things have gone very quiet so it's difficult to get a perspective on what they are and what they are supposed to be doing. Is it something that is going to fade away?"

Lack of publicity for the foundation degree is part of the problem. City College Manchester enrolled eight students out of a target of 20 for its part-time foundation degree. Bolton Institute's foundation degree in textiles attracted six part-time students out of a target of 12.

Penny Blackie, senior curriculum manager for City College Manchester, says:

"We were waiting for a marketing campaign from the Department for Education and Skills last March which didn't materialise.

"In May we couldn't advertise because of the general election. We didn't reach the students we wanted to reach - people in employment. But we've still ended up with viable groups."

Hereward College is part general FE college and part residential college for sensory and physically disabled students. Half of its full-time intake has special needs and Sue Taylor is concerned that foundation degrees ignore this group.

"Work placements actually make it quite hard for disabled students to access foundation degrees," she says. "Existing HNDs are much more accessible."

The AOC is reporting that some of the early concerns over the dominance of university partners is unjustified. Penny Blackie says: "MMU (Manchester Metropolitan University) officially led the bid but in fact City College led the process. The initiative came from us: we had to persuade them that they wanted to do it."

Margaret Lawson says: "The fear was that universities would take over the process but it just hasn't worked like that. The whole trend is towards collaboration."

Universities have had the most to gain from the relationship. It is more than just a widening participation issue. "Universities are realising that they have a lot to learn particularly with their validation processes."

"Instead of taking 24 months, they need to react on a business timescale - something FE colleges have been very good at."

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