Threats to foundation years should worry us all

The election has offered classroom-based foundation years a stay of execution. Sarah Hale and Stephen Leech wonder how long it will last

Sarah Hale is Policy Officer at the Foundation Year Network

Stephen Leech is Chair of the Foundation Year Network.

In a couple of weeks, just after the election, members of the Foundation Year Network will gather for its annual conference.

Since the network was formed in 2007, conference-goers have joked that one of the main purposes of the annual gathering is group therapy … and there is more than a little truth in this.

Foundation years and their practitioners – not to mention our students – often find themselves marginalised, misunderstood, and misrepresented within an increasingly hostile policy environment.

And foundation years and are currently facing a great deal of uncertainty about the future.

The delayed hovering axe

Since the Augar Report (five years ago) recommended that they be completely defunded, foundation years have had an axe hovering over them. On the final day of last year’s Foundation Year Network conference, DfE published research they had commissioned demonstrating that foundation years are no cheaper to deliver than any other year of study in a given subject. With impeccable timing, as we were making our way home later that same day, the government announced cuts of nearly 40 per cent to foundation year funding.

In May this year, following some months in which DfE scrambled to define a foundation year for the first time, guidance was issued to HEIs as to how they are to implement the cut. And not just how, but where – because for the first time, this policy introduces a precedent for fees varying by subject. Indeed, DfE helpfully produced a spreadsheet showing which subjects they consider less worthy of public funding. This should be a major cause for concern far beyond the foundation year sector: it should worry anyone teaching in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

These measures were due to be incorporated into last year’s Lifelong Learning Entitlement Act this summer, via statutory instruments – the increasingly popular means by which governments can pass skeleton legislation in Parliament, and then fill in the details afterwards with little, if any, scrutiny. However, this was put on hold by the surprise announcement of the general election: with Parliament dissolved, the statutory instruments already prepared by DfE civil servants cannot be taken forward.

Real issues, fake solution

But this apparent reprieve will just be a blip unless we can convince an incoming government not only of the value of foundation years, but of their importance. No easy task given all the other pressing issues it will face on day one.

This presents a challenge not least because we cannot pretend that all the previous government’s stated concerns about foundation years are entirely bogus. Statistics released by DfE in October 2023 revealed an extraordinary increase in foundation year provision since student number caps were removed in 2013, and with no sector-wide regulatory framework, standards, or quality regime in place, we cannot be confident that these are all of the high quality we would wish to see.

Foundation years are a diverse group of academic programmes that have emerged organically in response to the strategic, academic, and social contexts of the students, institutions, and subjects they serve. Until spring 2024, when it was needed for the purposes of legislation, there was no legal or official definition of a foundation year. They have no FHEQ level, and each provider sets its own curriculum and upholds its own academic standards, albeit supported by a strong pool of external examiners facilitated by the Foundation Year Network, promoting some consistency and benchmarking across the sector.

Quality at risk

As we’ve pointed out previously, it is high quality provision that is hit hardest by, and is now under existential threat from, this fees cut, for the simple reason that high quality foundation years are not cheap to provide – as the government’s own research acknowledges. If pockets of poor value do exist, it is not fee cuts that will address them, but a clearer quality and regulatory regime to ensure that the market for foundation years, which successive governments have encouraged, is delivering the high quality academic courses that our students need and deserve.

Institutions and practitioners offering high quality, effective provision which genuinely widens participation and promotes social mobility should have nothing to fear from appropriate and sensitive regulation – indeed, we should welcome it. But “appropriate” and “sensitive” are key watchwords here. Crude metrics of continuation, completion and graduate earnings won’t cut it for the students who need foundation years the most – those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with experience of exclusion, trauma, disabilities, and health issues, with employment and caring responsibilities. Any consideration of outcomes must take into account the impact of external factors on complex and challenging lives.

The Foundation Year Network is keen to work with policy makers and higher education experts on what a suitable quality assurance framework for foundation years could look like: one that ensures that marginalised and disadvantaged students can continue to be supported to thrive and succeed in a frequently exclusionary higher education system.

One response to “Threats to foundation years should worry us all

  1. This does feel like another self-inflicted problem. In OfS, we have a regulator with a specific remit to make it easier for new providers to enter the market, and one which responds to problems rather than seeks to prevent them. This, coupled with financial pressure, has led to an explosion in (often franchised) Foundation Provision of varying quality and risk.

    For me, the interesting thing is that the *benchmarked* continuation, completion and progression metrics (which do take into account student characteristics) often do show very good outcomes for high quality foundation provision, with courses exceeding those benchmarks.

    The risk is, in the rush to fix the problems which changes to regulation have created, we lose that high quality provision, to the detriment of the students which it is designed to support (and which it has supported successfully).

    If we do see a change in government, I hope this leads to a serious rethink of these plans.

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