Still a degree of uncertainty

Martin Whittaker

The foundation qualification has failed to take off despite some reasonable growth

Are foundation degrees succeeding or stalling? That rather depends on who you talk to. They were introduced in 2001 to provide more graduates, reduce skills shortages and encourage people who otherwise might not have considered taking a higher qualification.

In 20012 there were 4,460 foundation degree students. By last academic year, there were 45,620. Foundation Degree Forward, the organisation developing and supporting the qualification, expects this year's take-up to hit 50,000 - with around three-quarters taught in FE colleges.

Derek Longhurst, FDF's chief executive, said that, while no government targets were set, "it's a pretty reasonable expansion year-on-year". But there is a debate about whether the qualification is doing as well as it should.

Ray Dowd, former college principal and the Learning and Skills Council's agenda for change "champion", said there is growing concern about the take-up. "The numbers are actually very small when you consider that about half a million people were doing HNDs at one stage," he said.

He says the foundation degree is too commonly seen as a passport to an honours degree rather than a qualification in its own right.

"I think there are some good examples of where foundation degrees are meeting the needs of employers," said Mr Dowd. "But they haven't achieved the growth in numbers that the Government was expecting. And employers are not really engaging with them."

Another problem is the confusion created by the foundation degree being a higher education beast, and how this fits into the world of FE while also being validated by universities. Then there is the issue of funding provision at levels 4 and 5 - degree level.

A delegation representing further and higher education voiced its concerns to FE minister Bill Rammell earlier this year.

The Department for Education and Skills has asked the group to consider some new options for higher-level skills. One under consideration would be FE colleges and employers working together to develop a new vocational qualification at level 4.

A discussion paper by the LSC and the Higher Education Funding Council for England highlights confusion in the rationale and distinctiveness of provision, and in the funding arrangements.

John Widdowson, chairman of a group of colleges offering both further and higher education, said foundation degrees were "not yet doing the whole job".

Employers recognise and value traditional HNDs and HNCs but foundation degrees are yet to become as well known. "There are areas where foundation degrees have come along and satisfied a need that was unmet," he said.

"Equally, there are other areas, particularly those that require higher-level workplace skills where we're working really hard to ensure that foundation degrees do the same job and do it as well."

The DfES plans a marketing campaign aimed at employers and potential students.

A survey carried out in south-west England sheds light on the extent of employers' disinterest. Two-thirds of colleges believe growth in demand is limited by a lack of enthusiasm among businesses - particularly small and medium-sized firms.

The survey found that many employers think foundation degrees lack the rigour of traditional degrees. But when they were explained to employers, many could see the benefits, suggesting much of the mistrust is based on preconceptions rather than actual content or quality.

The Association of Colleges' survey involved 10 colleges and more than 1,600 students. It found that the main source of recruits for foundation degrees was colleges' own students. It also found that foundation degree students were enthusiastic and enjoyed the courses - retention rates were very high.

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Martin Whittaker

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