Foundation degrees: an appraisal
3 August 2012, by Prof Gareth Parry
Gareth Parry is Professor of Education and Director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Sheffield in the UK. He was a board member of Foundation Degree Forward.
In just over a decade, foundation degrees have become the dominant sub-bachelor qualification in English higher education. This has been achieved despite its confusing title and some scepticism about its status and fitness to be an undergraduate qualification. Not only was it the first new major qualification since the early 1970s, it was the first at the sub-bachelor level to be styled a degree. It has been compared (not always accurately) with the American associate degree, a qualification rejected for the UK by the Dearing inquiry. In many respects, the foundation degree is a very English creation (certainly not for adoption in Scotland). Nevertheless, it is a model or species of qualification recognisable in other systems.
The elements that define and distinguish the qualification are, firstly, its strong work focus and, secondly, its joint design, development and operation by three parties: by universities (who award the qualification), by colleges (who typically teach the degree) and by employers (who approve a curriculum matched to their requirements). Thirdly, it is offered in a variety of modes, especially for those combining work and study. Finally, although a free-standing qualification, progression is afforded to the final year of a linked bachelor degree.
As a higher education qualification, its outcomes and attributes need to align with the level descriptors for awards on the national framework for higher education qualifications. These set out the high-level analytical skills and competences expected of qualifications which, according the quality body for higher education, make them distinct from training or solely the acquisition of skills. On the framework, foundation degrees are positioned at the same level as higher national diplomas. This is one level below bachelor degrees and one level above higher national certificates. Foundation degrees are studied full-time over two years, or for an equivalent period part-time.
Invented by government
The new degree was an idea of government, not something that emerged directly from the higher education or further education sectors. Nor, at the time, was it something actively sought by employers and their organisations. In 1997, the incoming Blair government accepted the Dearing recommendation for renewed expansion funded in part by fees charged to students. The inquiry expected a large part of future growth to be expressed at the sub-bachelor levels and proposed that further education colleges take an increasing share of this demand. Short-cycle courses taught in colleges were seen as an affordable means to expansion and appropriate to a learning society and knowledge economy.
In the event, weak demand for existing sub-bachelor qualifications prompted a more radical set of policies. Announced in 2000 and launched in the following year, the foundation degree was to be the main vehicle to reach a 50% participation target set for 2010. By redressing the historic ‘skills deficit’ at the intermediate levels, the foundation degree would raise the value of work-focused qualifications and thereby widen as well as increase participation. In time, the new degree would subsume the other qualifications at these levels, so enabling more students to apply their learning to specific workplace situations. Furthermore, by guaranteeing arrangements for progression, students would face none of the barriers posed by earlier qualifications.
On a broader front, the foundation degree was one element in a government strategy to bring education and employment into closer relationship. At the upper end of a ‘new vocational ladder’, the degree would offer a route into higher education for adults and young people qualifying for entry on the basis of vocational and academic qualifications or appropriate prior and work-based learning. Employees looking to upgrade their skills were a key target group for the qualification. Part-time, modular, distance and work-based forms of delivery were expected to align with the lives and careers of individuals and the needs of labour changing markets. For their part, employers could specify the skills and knowledge requirements of their own enterprises.
From the beginning, such courses attracted additional public funding to meet the costs of development and collaboration. A national organisation – Foundation Degree Forward – was established to promote their growth. Both the universities and the colleges competed for the additional student numbers made available to expand these programmes. In the case of colleges, however, the preference of government was for indirect funding through franchise agreements with partner universities. This relationship, it was claimed, would identify foundation degrees with the university brand: serving to stimulate demand, safeguard quality and enhance progression.
Twelve years on
By 2010, there were more than 100,000 students registered on foundation degrees. Unlike the 50% participation target, the student number target for foundation degrees was met and exceeded. A large number of institutions (around 350) are involved in this provision. Three-quarters are further education colleges and the rest are mostly (but not exclusively) the new universities. Close to 60% of foundation degree entrants are taught in colleges, although the majority of these are franchise students registered at a university. Interestingly, the college-taught population study mainly full-time whereas just over half those taught at universities are part-time students. That said, these categorisations disguise a variety of lengths and modes of study, especially where work-based learning is a key component.
Even so, with full-time students in the majority, foundation degrees display less diversity than expected. For example, just one in five part-time students study by distance learning. On the other hand, these courses attract students of different ages and backgrounds, with a range of previous qualifications and prior experience. Some already possess higher education qualifications. This is a reflection of the dual role of foundation degrees: as courses of initial higher education for young people and as sources of continuing professional development or career change for those in employment.
Among full-time entrants, ‘creative arts and design’ is the most commonly studied subject field (by 20% of the entry cohort) followed by ‘business and administrative studies’ and ‘education’. Among part-time entrants, ‘education’ attracted more than one-quarter of the cohort, followed by ‘business and administrative studies’ and ‘social studies’. Again, these broad categories do not do justice to the specificity of the occupational areas, roles and responsibilities to which these courses relate. On the other hand, they indicate the prominence of the public sector in several of the markets served by these programmes. Information on the number, type and extent of involvement by employers in foundation degrees is not captured in standard data collection systems.
In the medium to long term, foundation degrees are intended to ‘break’ the traditional pattern of demand for undergraduate education. After twelve years of success in expanding foundation degree numbers, the dominance and popularity of the honours degree is undiminished. Some of this expansion was a matter of substitution. Nor have all higher national qualifications been replaced by foundation degrees. These older qualifications continue in fields like engineering where they are valued by employers.
The pull of the bachelor degree is evident as well in the proportion of foundation degree students who go on to study an honours degree. Three out of five full-time students and two out of five part-time students transfer to a bachelor degree, usually at a university but sometimes as a result of ‘top-up’ arrangements in a college. This is a tribute to the transfer function of the new qualification, although the range of options at bachelor level is usually narrow. Most importantly, progression is a key dimension of widening participation, especially if the foundation degree is to counter tendencies to ‘diversion’: the steering of low-income students into low-status programmes with fewer economic and social returns.
Gareth will be speaking at the conference on mid-level qualifications in October 2012.