Defunding foundation years would be a major mistake

Stella Fowler and Vicky Howell stage an impassioned defense of the role and value of foundation years in higher education

Stella Fowler is Policy and Research Manager at the Engineering Professors’ Council

Vicky Howell was Research and Editorial Assistant at the Engineering Professors’ Council

The government may yet decide to adopt the recommendation of the Augar Review and decide to defund foundation years.

The recommendation offered little evidence in support and would be a bad move both for social mobility and for meeting skills needs.

The way that foundation years (FYs) work in engineering exemplifies the argument – although this is just one example of what goes on across many disciplines. Let’s start with three facts:

  1. There are not enough graduate engineers (Engineering UK report)
  2. Those who study undergraduate engineering go on to earn more, on average, than most other graduates (LEO)
  3. Engineering is a better social leveller than most courses; it flattens the differences in outcomes based on socioeconomic status and so promotes social mobility (Engineering Opportunity)

If the government is serious about making the UK a science superpower and about levelling up, then it cannot undermine recruitment routes into engineering – a sector that spans nearly a quarter of the workforce, without being focused on London and the South-East. We cannot afford to limit access to engineering.

Indeed, the skills shortage is so great, we cannot merely recruit more young people, we also need to encourage mature learners to reskill.

Given that FYs are the entry pathway for nearly one in eight engineering graduates, especially the socioeconomically disadvantaged, we cannot do without them. They have also been accessed by more BAME students than White students since 2015 entry. They play a key role in lowering the drawbridge for entry and inviting disadvantaged students to the feast beyond.

Let us state clearly: FYs are not a patronising way into university for those who don’t meet basic standards. Nor are they merely a more costly alternative to HE Access diplomas (thank you, Augar).

Or, to quote the Universities Minister herself, they “play an important role in enabling students with lower prior attainment, potentially from disadvantaged backgrounds, to access high-tariff provision”. For both regular and mature students, FYs allow them to change career paths, or provide a second chance to those who lack the qualifications and subjects necessary for a degree.

So, should the newly unified Further and Higher Education Minister reject Augar and seek to expand high-quality FYs instead?

Just say no

In engineering, FY undergraduates typically enroll in integrated courses as Year “0” students on a four-year degree course. This provides a smooth transition into a full degree (starting in Year 1 in the FY students’ second year) at the same provider with their peers, without bottlenecks to progression.

The EPC’s recent policy paper, Engineering Opportunity, explains that, “Foundation courses, ideally with minimal procedural transition into degree study, are more effective than other access courses [AHEDs] because the continuity of study in the same institution supports progression.”

Integrated FYs offer an aspirational route without placing mental and practical obstacles, nor any jumping off point when the student transfers to a particular degree course (as is often the case with non-integrated FY courses in other disciplines). Unlike Access to HE diplomas (mostly studied in FE colleges), there’s no additional application to gain entry to HE or to apply for funding.

Take the progression of engineering students on Masters and Bachelors courses. In Engineering, among those who reach Masters level (MEng), it is far more common that they enrolled on MEng courses from the outset, rather than completing a Bachelors degree (BEng), being faced with a jumping off point but deciding to stay to progress to a Masters. In other words, setting students’ expectations high in the first place and making continuation the default makes them more likely to stretch further to reach their potential.

This is not a criticism of Access to HE Diplomas though. They serve a different and equally important purpose. They are usually more local, more flexible (part-time or evening-based) and offer a smoother transition on to the diploma at the beginning. But as well as not offering the transition to HE at the end, the student experience – learning alongside other undergraduates – is not something access diplomas can provide.

Policymakers must better understand that these different options serve different purposes. What they share is also important though – most students on FYs or access courses have already faced barriers to learning. Many FY engineers, for example, access their course not with Maths or Physics A levels, but with BTEC qualifications. Many are returners to education.

Gateways in

Lara Small is a graduate who now works for Rolls Royce. For Lara, studying a foundation year was her “gateway to Engineering”, following A-Levels that didn’t go quite as planned. After a conversation with a careers advisor, Lara decided she wanted to begin a career in Engineering – and an FY allowed her to start that journey. After attaining her Masters in Aerospace Engineering from UWE Bristol, she secured her position with Rolls Royce.

There are many other student stories like Lara’s – people who would not have been able to go to university if not for FYs – including many who through poor advice, limited course availability or changed minds, took non-facilitating subjects to engineering degree at A level in the first place.

Before we conclude, though, let’s take a (virtuous) circle back to social mobility. Engineering is virtually the poster child of the in-favour high-value degree. It should be noted that the salary premium is greatest for engineers with BTEC qualifications, a group that includes a disproportionate number from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Five years after graduating in engineering, former BTEC students earn an average of £8,100 more than the average wage of other graduates with BTECs. Among high-attaining students (those with four A grades or more at A level), the premium is a more modest £1,100.

Five years after graduation, a higher percentage of Engineering graduates with BTECs remain in sustained employment compared to their peers with high attainment pre-university. These patterns are in stark contrast to generally lower premiums for BTEC students in other disciplines.

So, by supporting the groups who not only gain most value themselves by studying an engineering degree, this route into the economy makes the most significant difference to these students’ job prospects and earnings potential and to plugging gaping skills shortages.

Foundation years and the opportunity they offer to transition into higher education in general – and into engineering in particular – are critical to disadvantaged students, to engineering and to the nation’s economic priorities.

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