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.