The long-awaited government response to the Augar Report brought a brief sigh of relief in parts of the foundation year sector, which has had the threat of a total withdrawal of funding hanging over it for nearly three years.
Rather than removing funding completely, the government proposes to cap fees for foundation years at the same level as Access: £5,197.
On closer examination, however, this is not the reprieve it might first have appeared. The headline figure may have changed but the underlying assumptions, and the likely effect, have not.
Alongside recommending the complete removal of funding for foundation years, Augar suggested that universities might develop Access provision themselves, and if that was where the money was, no doubt many foundation years would have been rebranded as Access, and scaled down to fit the fee available.
However – and this is a very important point – Access and foundation years are not the same thing. They meet different needs, in different ways and contexts, for different kinds of people at different points in their lives, and there is very much a need for both. The conception of Access and foundation years as fungible is a fundamental error, on which Augar’s recommendations are built.
The government nonetheless attempts to justify the ensuing policy proposal on the basis that foundation years are essentially the same as Access, and therefore that charging more for them represents universities profiteering at the expense of students “from poorer backgrounds” whom they “entice” (in Augar’s words) onto programmes that offer “poor value for money”.
Neither Augar nor the Department for Education (DfE) offers any evidence for these claims. They cannot, because an evidence base does not currently exist, despite the Foundation Year Network having been calling for one, and offering to help develop it, since 2016.
Belatedly, DfE has commissioned research into the financial costs (not, note, the value) of foundation years but has either prejudged or already decided to ignore the findings, before the data has even been gathered, let alone analysed.
The main basis for this negative characterisation of foundation years appears to be some critical media coverage that was doing the rounds in the summer of 2018 (‘Join us for an extra foundation year, say universities to weaker students’ harrumphed the Sunday Times), following the avowedly alarmist motion carried at UCU’s May conference that year, which framed foundation year fees as a “poverty tax” and accused universities of “selling these courses to students while generating huge revenues”.
While it might be naive to assume that all provision currently going under the banner of foundation years is high quality, excellent value for money, and genuinely widens access and equips people from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed at university and beyond, we know that there is a great deal that is and does. And the better the provision, the harder it will be hit by a fees cut.
We don’t actually need to see a figure in pounds, shillings, and pence to know that high-quality foundation year provision costs as much as, and frequently more than, Year 1 and beyond at the same institution.
We know this because we can see that the contact hours are the same or more; the teaching staff – both subject and academic skills specialists – are equally or more highly qualified; the time and effort that goes into preparation and currency is as great or greater.
And on top of this, the best foundation years also provide extra pastoral and academic support, with many employing additional dedicated staff to deliver it.
Taken together, this constitutes the very “commitment … to support their students to succeed, irrespective of their backgrounds” and the “steps to meet the needs of students from underrepresented groups” envisaged by OfS in its refusal to allow contextual factors to mitigate lower continuation and completion rates.
These foundation years are not about cramming “weaker students” to make up the equivalent of a couple of tariff points and boost recruitment while keeping headline tariffs high. They are about supporting and equipping potentially strong but significantly disadvantaged students to overcome the considerable barriers that would otherwise continue to keep them out of HE: previous educational experiences, poverty, ill-health, disability, mental health, and caring responsibilities, to name just a few. And they happen across the full range of the highest to the lowest tariff institutions.
Investment in future
Foundation years like this do not represent a cheap option or a quick buck. They are an investment – by students in their own futures, and by universities in their students, their diversity, and, often, their local area.
Of course it’s not right that students “from poorer backgrounds” should have to bear the costs of mitigating their own disadvantage, but that is not a problem of foundation years’ making, and it is not a reason for undermining one of the most effective means of that mitigation.
The irony here is that what OfS are demanding with one hand – “removing or minimising disadvantages suffered by students from underrepresented groups” – is being taken away by DfE with the other.
But setting aside the excellent provision which we know does exist, let’s return to the government’s – possibly mythical – nightmare scenario of a low-quality foundation year, delivered cheaply, whose main purpose is high-volume recruitment. A programme with poor quality teaching, large class groups, and minimal support could more easily be delivered for the proposed lower funding. Furthermore, an institution that needed the numbers that badly might be happy to view it as a loss leader and cross-subsidise it.
A fees cut will not kill off “poor quality”, cheaply delivered or recruitment-orientated foundation years. If such foundation years do exist, then this policy will support them to continue and grow; if they do not already exist, it will create them, as quality is pared down to a price.
Meanwhile high-quality, genuinely transformative foundation years, the ones that equip the most disadvantaged students to succeed at university and beyond, will wither and die, taking the hopes and opportunities of thousands of potential students with them.