The downfall of foundation degrees?

New qualifications are like hatchlings. To survive, they require a considerable amount of care and attention. If they grow quickly, there is a danger that they will push others out of the nest.

Thus the introduction of foundation degrees contributed to the decline of Higher National Diplomas (HND) – as, it seems, the latter were converted into the former.

But it didn’t last long. From 2009 foundation degrees began to take a tumble, alongside the continued diminution of HND and Higher National Certificate (HNC) provision.

The number of students enrolling on foundation degrees in the UK fell by over 40% between 2009 and 2013. Or, to put it another way, from 3.5% of all higher education enrolments down to 2.2%.

Every type of non-degree undergraduate level study has shrunk since 2009, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce). “The decline in other undergraduate entry affects all study types, part-time and full-time students and, in the case of foundation degrees, most subject areas.

This is in part a tale of university decline – college foundation degree provision grew by 3000 between 2010 and 2012. From 2009, a growing number of universities delivering foundation degrees and HNDs began to shift students onto first degree courses as a ‘rational response to the existence of student number controls…employing foundation degrees of HNDs as exit routes where necessary’.

But it’s also a story about care and attention.

Foundation Degree Forward was among the organisations incinerated in the bonfire of the quangos. That move, in tandem with the 2010 freeze on Government communications spending (with notable exceptions latterly), has meant that little or nothing has been spent centrally on promoting foundation degrees nationally for over four years.

Nor have they enjoyed political favour. There have been only a handful of Ministerial speeches given during this administration – Vince Cable’s April 2014 Cambridge Public Policy Lecture on the future of higher and further education being a notable exception – in which foundation degrees have enjoyed more than a passing mention.

One government press release has been issued on the topic in this parliament, according to the archives. There have been 13 times more references to apprenticeships in the House of Commons through written or oral answers, than there have been to foundation degrees since 2003.

Beyond Parliament, it is difficult to assess their reputation. One consequence of the lack of government interest and investment is a paucity of contemporary research. There do not appear to be any (published) recent national studies of student or employer awareness of foundation degrees.

If you are one of the further education colleges successfully teaching many hundreds of foundation degree students each year and growing your numbers, any talk of the demise of foundation degrees probably seems alarmist and ridiculous. Foundation degrees enjoy particularly rude health in areas which would otherwise be higher education (extremely) cold spots.

But the ‘market’ is working against provision in terms of product recognition nationally, as the three year residential model continues to dominate.

What is the moral here?

Firstly, beyond the four colleges currently exercising foundation degree awarding powers, the national enrolment trends are likely to make others wary of undertaking the costly and laborious FDAP process.

Secondly, the foundation degree story is as much about an unexpectedly limited aversion to debt among the student population and the cultural history of the UK, as it is about national marketing and promotion. Some of the ‘reasons’ for foundation degrees haven’t materialised – some, like employer engagement at the centre of a qualification, seem as important as ever.

Nevertheless, you can’t raise a qualification in absentia. New qualifications of whatever type need national support, probably for longer than a decade. But even with political backing this might not be enough to keep them healthy; in fact, it can be a disadvantage if the succour of politicians, as was arguably the case with the Diploma, draws the bile of the fourth estate.

Thirdly, will a similar fate befall the next big thing? Would ‘technical degrees’ or whatever neophilism takes political flight of fancy have the wings to survive a change of administration or the demise of its parent agency? Would its creators understand that reputation is about sustained, long-term advocacy and endorsement?

News of foundation degrees’ demise would be very much exaggerated. Not least because some of their decline may be attributed to universities and colleges not recording the foundation degree achievements of students who go on to study first degrees. I think they still seem a very good idea, but even good ideas need communicating.

3 responses to “The downfall of foundation degrees?

  1. Basically FDs were poorly implemented. The author needs to remember that FDs were exclusively an English qualification rather than quoting a “UK” figure. HNs are still flourishing in Scotland. The failure to set up a ‘national’/English independent validating mechanism meant that in most areas colleges had to find a partner university to work with on design and approval, unlike HNs where colleges could either take the curriculum ‘off the shelf’ from BTEC (EdExcel) or develop a mix with some centre-devised units. There was a requirement to specify a specific route to get to Bachelor’s level – with all the inevitable problems. Most universities that were involved saw the FD development as a route to progression transfers and ‘easy recruitment’ for degrees run on the university’s main campus. But in order to infill with existing students, this was mainly full time and did not sit well with the work-based ethos of FDs or the concept of ‘earn while you learn’.

    This all fell apart with the introduction of the Student Number Control in England. Although there were exemptions for those transferring, Universities figured that in a time of constraint they were better off financially to concentrate on the market for 3 year full time degrees, as that produced the maximum funding across the period for the least cost/effort. Hence the range of ‘top-up’ degrees was never fit-for-purpose in taking FD graduates (though of course there were many good individual ones).

    However there are also fundamental systemic problems.

    Firstly there is the failure of employers (in England) to engage in course design (with notable exceptions such as the NHS). Private sector employers do a lot of talking about their need for particular graduate skills but very little actual interaction with course design, still less leadership of it. Some decades ago the Association of Graduate Recruiters (the private blue-chip organisations on the traditional milk round of universities) came up with a specification of the type of graduate skills they needed – ironically their specification of team and functional skills corresponded with that produced by an HND graduate studying in an FE college and entering with one A level or a vocational qualification; the AGR continued to recruit mainly from the Oxbridge/Russell Group layer of institutions with students who had the best A level results. In some countries incentives such as state tax allowances encourage employers to engage more actively with HE and its qualifications, but left to their own devices market mechanisms cannot solve every problem and this is one example of market failure.

    Secondly, the period of austerity meant that the necessary pump-priming for any substantial new qualification initiative dried up and the SNC process of counting students through the gate (rather than the aggregate system used in past periods of constraint eg MASN) forced institutions down the route of taking a student for as long as possible in the first instance and locking them in to that institution, rather than giving incentives for flexibility, progression and credit transfer (this has now become endemic).

    Thirdly, in the longer term the decision of the Bologna process to define the ‘first cycle’ of HE as ending with the Bachelor’s degree means that any ‘sub-degree’ qualification will always be considered second rate unless it leads to a right to completion of the first cycle. I say ‘longer term’ because most institutions and agencies in England are inherently ‘Eurosceptic’ and pay scant attention to Bologna (refusing, for example, to transfer marks as well as credit from elsewhere). However it is a general problem for vocational qualifications such as the BTS in France.

    Finally, we have a huge class divide in HE where the traditional academic route to graduation is seen as inherently superior. Oxford University was never going to validate a Foundation Degree. The ‘parity’ between vocational and academic routes that exists in some countries is shunned in Britain. (Perry Anderson once equated that philistinism as being one of the characteristics of the ‘unfinished’ nature of the English bourgeois revolution in the seventeenth century – possibly going a bit far, but we can all see what he means when you glance at the composition of our decision-makers in parliament).

    Due to the independence of HE providers in making entry/transfer decisions, rather than a statutory right to a place on the programme of one’s choice and at a time of one’s choosing, institutions will always go for the bachelor’s degree when push comes to shove.

    The DipTech issued in the Colleges of Advanced Technology by the National Council of Technological Awards 1957-1963, suffered a similar fate, despite the arrival of the white heat of the technological revolution in 1964.

    The opportunity to introduce the ‘Associate Degree’ type of qualification on a systematic basis was presented by the Robertson report back in the early 1990s, but that fell on deaf ears, even from the former polytechnics who were too enamoured with the gaining of University title and degree awarding powers to think back to their own roots. The FDAP process was the same as that for TDAP and that killed stone dead creating a wide pool of institutions able to both design and deliver FDs on their own terms. Unless we move to a system of generalised awarding powers for colleges of higher level skills programmes, with funding incentives from an earmarked budget, we are never going to wean the system off its slavish addiction to the three year academic honours degree route.

    There are many good examples of FD implementation and it is something that we can learn from. But if we are to move forward, it needs a fundamental scrutiny of the constraints that prevented the FD becoming widespread and the economic benefits that should attach to distinctively vocational routes, followed by a route-and-branch reform of the system. The day we have a cabinet minister whose son or daughter achieved graduate status by a path through the vocational route will be the day we know we’ve achieved real and meaningful change.

  2. As spmeone on the outside who probably knew more about FDs than anyone (having analysed every pubslished and grey literature paper ever written about them up to 2009) my prior scepticism about the qualification was replaced by enthusiasm and support. My author note on the FDF published literature review stated;
    I began this research review with no preconceived ideas about foundation degrees. If anything, I was a hint sceptical that they could deliver their widening-participation aim. I now appreciate the excellent nature of the foundation degree both as concept and in practice. It has been a struggle to establish the new qualification and I have enormous admiration for the higher college and university staff and employers who have faith in it and have produced such excellent programmes. Most of all I have the highest regard for the students who have graduated from foundation degree courses; many of them have had to balance study with work and extensive family responsibilities.

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