Should universities be level 3 providers?

Sub-degree provision isn't a modern innovation, argues David Carter. It is common worldwide, and a central part of what many universities offer

David Carter is Head of the International Study and Language Institute at the University of Reading

The Augar report, published in May 2019, feels like an awfully long time ago.

Theresa May was still (just) the prime minister; the UK was still (just) in the EU; and nobody expected that a pandemic would dominate the national and international agenda.

Thirty months later, the landscape of English higher education may appear to have changed. Yet we are still waiting for the government to complete its response to the Augar report. The Interim Conclusion of the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (January 2020) addressed technical education but had little to say to the HE sector. The autumn budget and spending review said even less. Into this news vacuum came talk of a higher education white paper, which may (or may not) be with us soon.

One particular recommendation is left dangling: the status of foundation years in higher education. Augar covers the issue in just one page of the report. But the recommendation, to remove student finance from foundation years in higher education, could have significant consequences.

Behind this recommendation is a bigger question: do universities have any business delivering pre-undergraduate foundation years? I want to argue that they do.

The global view

A brief word on definitions. Foundation years are taught at level 3 (equivalent to A level) in the National Qualifications Framework for England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland is different). Level 4 is the first rung in the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications published by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). A student who begins their degree programme at level 3 typically qualifies for four years of student finance.

Augar finds that the numbers of foundation-year students in higher education “almost tripled between 2012-13 and 2017-18”. He suspected that:

 universities are using foundation years … to entice students who do not otherwise meet their standard entry criteria

Augar finds this depressing, given that enrolments on Access Diploma courses, offered much more cheaply by the further education sector, declined by 18 per cent over the same period.

But is level 3 provision such a novelty in the higher education sector? Not if we take the global view. Students around the world, especially in North America and parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, leave school at 17 and progress to university a year earlier than in the English, Welsh and Northern Irish systems.

Any university that seeks to engage globally, therefore, must make provision for students to learn at level 3. Most British universities either run an international foundation year or invite a private provider to do so on their behalf. International branch campuses, among other transnational education initiatives, almost always include foundation years. My own university has been running its own level 3 provision for nearly forty years. Some – but by no means all – international foundation students take English language classes. All of them gain subject knowledge. At its core, an international foundation year is designed to address diverse learning needs, giving students the academic skills they need to succeed in university study.

How to be good at delivering level 3 courses

In this context, the creation of foundation years for the home market is a natural move to make and an extension of existing provision. University-run foundation years promote diversity among home students, and in the routes they take into higher education. An Office for Students report finds that students on university-run foundation years are more likely to progress to their first undergraduate year than students taking access courses in the FE sector.

But we can do better. Here are three priorities for the development of level 3 provision in universities.

1. Get better data. The true size and shape of level 3 provision in the HE sector is hard to capture. Complete HESA data on level 3 enrolments are not freely available. And the private providers that work within universities regard their data as commercially sensitive and not to be released.

2. Demonstrate success. Within this data, we must demonstrate further success in the retention of students and (further down the line) their degree results. We can show that students have not wasted their time.

3. Set consistent standards. For progression data to be credible, we need to show that the standards set in foundation years are equivalent to other level 3 qualifications. One issue is that universities are not awarding bodies at level 3. Should a student leave university at the end of the foundation year, they take with them no more than a certificate of attendance and a transcript of marks. QAA is consulting on a characteristics statement for international pathway courses, which might be the first step towards correcting this position.

On the funding issue, English universities are in the hands of the government. But, whichever way the policy pendulum swings, the HE sector can take one other useful step. We can work more closely with FE providers. If student finance is taken away from university foundation years, more of the burden of providing access to Higher Education will fall back on the FE sector. Universities should maintain a stake in this provision. They have both the incentive and the ability to work in partnership.

One response to “Should universities be level 3 providers?

  1. Be careful what you are asking for here. The data across the piece on student outcomes are quite poor, particularly when the entry tariff is lowered to attract a decent market share. FE providers won’t necessarily to a better job if they replicate the kinds of “finishing school” foundation programmes run at universities and by private providers. A better option would be to redo A’levels as they are more rigorous.

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