Overall, the cost of delivering a foundation year is broadly similar to the cost of delivering first year of an undergraduate degree in the same subject area.
Indeed, where providers offer additional support, extended contact hours, or smaller classes the costs of running a foundation year may be higher than the costs associated with the first year of an undergraduate degree.
That, at least, is the inconvenient key finding of an independent research project commissioned from IFF Research by the government.
Most consultation respondents saw challenges rather than opportunities in the proposal, suggesting that “reducing foundation year fee and loan limits would risk the viability and quality of much foundation year provision.” And in the research report we find that “foundation years are generally seen to help students achieve good outcomes, specifically increasing knowledge and skills, overall confidence, and the ability to settle into HE life.”
Costs and benefits
All of which makes the decision to reduce the fees chargeable for classroom based (Office for Students price group D) foundation year provision to £5,670 a very curious one.
It’s pretty clear that the impetus of DfE is to push providers and students towards LLE-supported short courses and away from the foundation year that leads to an undergraduate degree. Ministers have been quick to emphasise that this increases the available funds for students to access other courses later in life (a full cost foundation year plus three years of study would use up the entire lifetime allocation), but as yet there is no evidence that the appetite for LLE style provision is there.
Gillian Keegan was also concerned, in the House of Commons, about providers adding to their bottom line via foundation provision at the expense of students. Aside from the uncertain cost differential, nobody is forcing students to study foundation years and yet they continue to do so for reasons we should really respect.
Where are foundation years?
For such an interesting part of higher education provision, there is surprisingly little data on this level of study – an issue remarked on in the equalities analysis, consultation response, and research report.
In terms of public data we are very limited, but I can show you provider numbers up to 2020-21 from my private stash (thanks to the ever wonderful HESA press team).
Curiously, at a course level we can do slightly better, thanks to the Unistats dataset. Here for instance are the number of courses with optional or mandatory foundation years, by provider and subject area.
To see affected subject areas you need to be looking at those in price group D – so things like humanities, social sciences, business, or English literature. Creative arts sits predominantly in group C.
And here’s the same data as a map, giving you an eye over regional aspects (although mainly because Mark Leach likes maps).
In provider terms we can see a fairly mixed bag active in this space – both institutions we would typically associate with access for disadvantaged groups, and more research intensive providers looking to do their bit too.
Of course, the point of doing a foundation year is (generally) to progress onto an honours degree. We don’t – crucially – have the data regarding how likely this progression is to happen, or how a foundation year affects continuation, completion, and graduate outcomes. But we do have data – by provider and subject – as to which courses at which providers tend to see people entering from foundation years.
The deeper the red, that higher the proportion of students entering via a foundation year.
You’ll note here that courses that include a foundation year tend not to have students involved that have entered via a foundation year. This stumped me for a while, until I realised that Unistats treats your entry to the course as a whole as the point at which your entry qualification is recorded – and students are singularly unlikely to do two foundation years in a row.
Instead, this shows us the wider ecosystem of courses – bearing in mind the classic offer of a standard departmental foundation year leading to any number of undergraduate courses – that would be affected by sudden changes to the supply of foundation years.
All of which rather brings us up short. We don’t know what the overall effect of reducing the viability (and thus, as is heavily hinted, the provision) of foundation years because much of it will relate to entry to other courses.
And it is entirely likely that this will disproportionately have an impact on what we may describe as non-traditional students.
The IFF Research report characterises, via a series of interviews with foundation year professionals, the likely groups of students who might enter a foundation year as follows:
Students who did not meet standard entry requirements
By far the biggest group, these are 18 year old students who have not got the grades they needed to progress to their choice of higher education course and provider. As an option for students who have the “desire and potential” for higher education, this is likely to include many students who – because of any circumstance – underperformed at A level compared to expectations.
This is the second-largest group of students, and includes those who have had negative previous experiences of education, or those who are retraining or returning to learning after a long gap. Though most agreed that foundation years do not target mature learners directly, it is recognised that many such learners would find such opportunities useful.
Compared to nearly everywhere else in the world, the UK tends to see young people specialise very early – making life-defining decisions at the age of 16. Sometimes people realise they have made the wrong decision – that humanities are their passion even though their A levels are sciences – and want to move into a different field of study. A foundation year offers the opportunity to do so without simply repeating a year or two at school.
Now there is no indication that learners who may not have had the support or stable environment they needed to succeed at 16, or who may not have got the advice they needed, or that may be looking to return to education and upskill are always from deprived backgrounds. But these are experiences we tend to associate with less advantaged starts to life, and it is fair to suggest that they will be among the most affected by less foundation year provision being available.
The government’s equality analysis attempts to have its cake and eat it in the Johnsonian manner. Any group overrepresented in classroom-based foundation year study (ethnic minorities, for instance – and men) is benefiting because such groups are more likely to be debt-averse so would be more likely to study a year with a lower sticker price. This ignores the government stated aim of encouraging providers to phase out classroom-based foundation years “in favour of a broad range of tertiary options with the advent of the LLE.”
In essence, the government has done nothing to address the criticisms levelled against the plan when Augar first introduced it. The plan clearly benefits no-one, and will only serve to cut undergraduate student numbers in ways that pay no attention to disparities of opportunity or access.