The proliferation of foundation year courses has created some blind spots

The Department for Education is cutting fees for classroom-based foundation years. Josh Freeman argues that firmer outcomes-based regulation would be a better approach

Josh is Policy Manager at the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)

Foundation years are a contentious issue in current higher education debates. The sector is still reeling from the Sunday Times article which accused some Russell Group institutions of using international foundation years to bring in higher fee-paying international students at lower grades than home students have to achieve.

Foundation year courses have grown explosively: eight times as many students took foundation year courses in 2021–22 as took them a decade earlier. Some 70,000 students study on these courses each academic year, more students than are enrolled at University College London, the UK’s largest conventional university.

A foundation year is an extra year of study tacked onto the beginning of a full degree course to prepare students for study. Advocates argue they are a powerful tool for access, giving new students – who are often mature and lack qualifications at a high level – a chance to catch up to their peers who followed a more conventional route.

But the narrative around foundation year courses has been mixed. The Augar review was famously brutal, implying that, as most foundation year students take courses like business with no specific entry requirements, foundation years are often unnecessary. Instead, they are used to “entice” students to pay extra tuition fees. Augar thought funding for foundation years should be scrapped and Access to Higher Education diplomas, stand-alone Level 3 qualifications usually taught in further education colleges, should be prioritised.

In July 2023, the Department for Education (DfE) took action. As part of its crackdown on “rip-off” university degrees, the DfE announced plans to cut the maximum fee that institutions can charge for some foundation years from £9,250 to £5,760. The fee cut will only apply to classroom-based courses – the courses the Office for Students put in its price group D, the cheapest to run – including business, humanities and social sciences. Other foundation year courses can still charge the full fee.

Cracks in our foundations

In today’s HEPI report, we use new data to explore the merits of these competing arguments. Do foundation years bring in students from backgrounds typically underrepresented in higher education? Do they support these students to succeed in higher education? And will the DfE’s policy shift support high-quality foundation years – or make things worse?

We find that the overall picture is mixed: foundation years perform well on the question of access but struggle to deliver consistently excellent outcomes for students.

On the one hand, nearly two-thirds of foundation year students are mature (aged 21 or older) and nearly three-in-ten have no prior qualifications. This is impressive, especially given that 98 per cent of all undergraduates have a qualification at Level 3 or higher (A levels, BTECs, Scottish Highers, and so on) and given also that the number of mature students in higher education has collapsed since 2008–09.

Yet foundation years are mainly the domain of low-tariff institutions. High-tariff institutions admit only four per cent of foundation year students. And they do not work for all students. Less than three-quarters of students (74 per cent) proceed from the foundation year to a full degree course or get a qualification, compared with 91 per cent of undergraduate students and 82 per cent of mature students. That makes 19,000 students a year whose foundation year does not even get them into degree-level study – about the same number as studying at a university like Plymouth, Bath, or Loughborough – and for whom we must do better.

Context is important. The students who take foundation years have fewer qualifications than those who start their degree directly and will inevitably need more support to succeed. But we should have high expectations for all our courses, especially when we market foundation years as a “gateway” to getting a degree.

How to solve a problem like foundation years

We find that cutting fees for classroom-based courses is the wrong approach. This policy marks out business, humanities and social sciences courses as being poor quality, but some of these courses will be excellent and others not covered by the policy will need improvement. All foundation years should be able to charge the same fee.

While foundation years can play a fantastic role, institutions are not all getting them right. There are bound to be teething issues as the number of courses grows. But so much is at stake, including the precious money, time and energy of the students who take them. These students deserve a good chance of getting a degree.

On that basis, the national regulator, the Office for Students, should take a firmer stand against foundation years that do not deliver excellent outcomes. Courses with a foundation year should be assessed on a different basis from comparable courses with no foundation year, to account for the more challenging context. But if, after investigation, a course cannot be shown to work for its students, it should not receive student finance. This gives institutions a powerful incentive to decide whether a course is worth running and if so, to improve it to the benefit of every student.

The principle set out in the Robbins report of 1963 is that higher education courses “should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them.” Foundation years make higher education accessible to many more people and this should be celebrated. But they must also ensure that those who enter higher education have every chance of success.

4 responses to “The proliferation of foundation year courses has created some blind spots

  1. There is no doubt some, if not many, Russell Group member institutions do see Foundation Years in the same way they did and used ‘pre-sessional’ courses, as a way of integrating certain high fee paying overseas students, whilst taking the extra money for providing both the cheap to teach course and the ghetto Halls where they’ll live in a virtually closed exclusive community.

    None of this should surprise, as the bottom line of not just as many ‘bums on seats’ ( as possible, but with as much income (profit in real terms as our business members of council understand and demand) as possible, and fully funded ‘overseas’ students are far more profitable, ~£27k v £9k per annum in most cases, than ‘home’ UK students, with the abuse of the Foundation Year facility giving an extra year of higher profit.

    For most UK students “Augar thought funding for foundation years should be scrapped and Access to Higher Education diplomas, stand-alone Level 3 qualifications usually taught in further education colleges, should be prioritised.” makes much more sense, though ‘mature’ students may be better off in a University setting with more ‘adults’ around, though with the immaturity of recent University student cohorts even that is questionable.

    1. As the report makes clear though, the vast majority of these Foundation Year students are home students, not international students.

      In addition, the Home students coming in with Access to HE Diplomas have worse outcomes than Foundation Year students.

      The likely impact of forcing Foundation Year programmes to close to home students by significantly reducing their fees will just be to damage access.

      It will have very little impact on the smaller number of international students on integrated foundation years at UK HEIs, as they wouldn’t be affected by a fee cut.

  2. “We find that cutting fees for classroom-based courses is the wrong approach.” I totally disagree.

    The fees must be cut so that the bulk of universities offering these courses cease to deliver the courses, which are a waste of tax payers money and a disgrace to the idea of an undergraduate qualification.

    Classroom based teaching belongs to schools and colleges and should not take place in universities for UK students. The majority of the business courses seem little better than A levels and leave many of their students in unnecessary debt.

    The Widening of Access to Participation in HE has gone too far when it comes to the provision of undergraduate degrees. Too many institutions, in the pursuit of income, are pushing those with insufficient ability into inappropriate degrees that are damaging the lives of many mature students, causing mental health issues, avoidable stress, lifelong debt and misery because of the miss representation of Robbins who wanted ” higher education courses ……..for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them.” He did not say “undergraduate degrees” and neither did Tony Blair.

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