Shaky foundations? Student perspectives on foundation years

As higher education stakeholders continue to debate the Augar Report, it is important that we remember to check in with actual students – especially on issues that have largely flown under the radar.

As described in the report, foundation years are one-year programmes integrated into degree courses (also called extended courses). They enable students who do not have all of the appropriate qualifications to enter their chosen subject. The Augar Report recommends doing away with all eligibility to finance for the foundation year (FY) and pushing students into Access to Higher Education (HE) Diploma programmes instead, which it insists are direct replacements.

The justification for this recommendation is that there is some type of conspiracy by universities to “entice students” to enter university, which according to them is not in their best interests. As David Kernohan pointed out on Wonkhe, there does not seem to be much evidence to support the panel”s harsh critique – and the argument that the impact on widening participation could be protected by a delayed implementation seems (at best) precarious.

In some of the informal feedback I receive from students in my role, comments on foundation years have always seemed positive. I set out to talk more with students to see if they felt the FY was in their best interest or not. It turned out that students” views were more complex than I had anticipated and far from the simplistic version of reality presented by Augar.

Building for the future

The students I talked to spoke about how essential the FY was to preparing them for further study by building their confidence and skills as students. Sam, a recent graduate, had a “bad 6th form experience”. With the FY, she “felt this really prepared her for university life” and she learned how to “apply knowledge properly.” A current student, Dan, said that the year “gave me an idea of what to expect from Uni life and how to organise and apply myself in lectures.” Peter, a mature student, decided to do an extended course to change his career and found the FY “invaluable.” Another current student, Alice, enjoyed that her FY modules included students from different course pathways, meaning that she was “able to have a bigger social circle” and feel less isolated.

For Sam, Alice and Dan, the FY offered the only option to attend university with their qualifications. With the extended courses, they were able to enter university on a similar footing to their peers and as Sam recalled, “feel like you’re at the level you should be.” Alice, who was also the first in her family to attend university, had not had prior knowledge of what university might be like. She said doing the FY gave her a “baseline expectation” moving forward and she found the remaining years of her course much less overwhelming, especially for “course work and paper writing.”

When asked why they didnt consider Access to HE Diplomas, most had never considered the option. Sam thought it was only for mature students and Alice and Dan didn’t know they existed. Peter had considered attending an FE programme, but found it a less appealing option as there is not clear signposting. Learning code to prepare for a computer science engineering course, Peter said this would have been like “being told you’re moving to a different country but not where.”

Regarding other options, Dan said, “I did look into doing another A level however the commute was too long, and it was expensive. Foundation seemed the best option.” Doing the FY was the most attractive option as it would take place all in the same HE institution. That would mean continuity and the experience of university life from the start.

While everyone stated that the experience was positive overall, some did point out areas for improvement. Sam commented that the experience felt like being in a “nursery group” with students feeling that some modules were taught at a GCSE level. She also pointed out that while the programme does make university more accessible, it does so at the cost of student retention rates. Sam recalled being warned by lecturers in the FY “not to expect everyone to remain” which was “true in her experience.”

The cost of FY was questioned by Sam and Dan as well. Sam suggested that fees for the foundation year should be similar to the sandwich year with fees capped. This was echoed by Dan who explained that there are basically no practical sessions or activities that validate the fees being equal to the standard degree year. They both also mentioned that taught material doesn’t appear to change from year to year, so it is confusing as to what the full fee is actually spent on.

When asked to respond to the Augar quote about using foundation years to entice students that wouldn’t normally enter university, graduate Sam said that the quote was “spot-on” in terms of making HE more accessible and to allow smaller universities to compete with larger universities. Maybe we should be asking the Augar panellists why this is such a bad thing?

Avoiding castles in the air

The Augar Report asks why more students don”t enter Access to HE Diploma programmes in favour of a foundation year, but the evidence seems clear enough. Students don’t receive the same access to maintenance loans or grants as they would entering a foundation year. The review”s recommendation also undermines the desire of students, like the ones I spoke with, to gain the skills they needed to prepare in a university environment.

So given the option to pay less at a Further Education institution, but with less funding to sustain themselves, students are choosing higher loans, higher funding and the ability to enter HE.

These students all relayed their fears that closing financing to foundation years would close off a valuable opportunity for students, especially those from poorer backgrounds and “leaving them only accessible for rich students” as Dan pointed out. Denying funding for foundation years would surely lessen prospects for students that face both academic and socioeconomic barriers to traditional higher education routes.

Policy based on these recommendations risks losing sight of the big picture by focusing too much on fees. An overhaul to HE admission through a PR campaign for Access to HE Diplomas and a cut to foundation year financing is the recommendation from Augar. The students I spoke with worry that future students will lose an accessible pathway and widening participation will suffer. One group appears to have their priorities in order and I’d like to hear more of their stories.

3 responses to “Shaky foundations? Student perspectives on foundation years

  1. Very interesting to hear student voices on this issue seemingly supporting the view held by those of us working on Foundation Year provision, that the Access to HE vs FY argument is much more complex/nuanced than Augar might suggest..

  2. Definitely chimes with the experiences students at the institutions I’ve worked for. I myself did an Access course, which I loved, but was hard to balance with full time work and excluded those on benefits as it was counted as a full time course (despite being 2 evenings a week at the time, a rarity these days) , meaning that those on benefits lost them and had to drop out – I know several of those students later went on to foundation degrees.

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