Cutting fees for foundation years could turn out to be foolhardy

Ministers are clearly sceptical about the value of foundation years, but on the limited data available David Kernohan finds that the equalities impact of reducing them could be worse than anticipated

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

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).

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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.

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And here’s the same data as a map, giving you an eye over regional aspects (although mainly because Mark Leach likes maps).

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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.

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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.

Unintended consequences

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.

Mature students

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.

Conversion students

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.

7 responses to “Cutting fees for foundation years could turn out to be foolhardy

  1. David you missed the fact that the OfS do publish B3 data on First Degree with integrated foundation years, admittedly it’s a bit hidden under the “course type” split but it is there for every provider if you wanted to look. Of course as it is itself a split it’s not broken down by all the other splits which would I am sure be enlightening but it is benchmarked.

    1. Hi Richard – indeed, but this gives us progression, continuation etc for the course as a whole, not specifically the foundation year (many of which, as David R notes, are quasi-standalone courses (pure standalones are not current fee loan eligible) that can lead to any number of undergraduate pathways rather than integrated)

      1. Can I check my understanding here. Are the denominator figures for ‘First Degree with an Integrated Foundation Year’ entrants, those who started on a Foundation Year course (i.e. those who have a YEARPRG = 0 when YEARSTU = 1)? If so, I guess this gives us some indication of outcomes for that group of students compared to the generality of FT FD students. (Of course, there are no public outcomes data for the single year that comprises the FY because it isn’t a qualification aim in its own right for the loan eligibility reason, and we can’t account for all the other demographic differences that play into the outcomes of students who might be more likely to take an FY, but is this somewhere to start?)

  2. The other interesting split in this data is fee eligibility.
    I also think the heidi data conflates integrated foundation years, and standalone FYs.

  3. Just a quick note about their ‘lifetime allocation for student finance’ – that’s not strictly true from experience. General rule of thumb is SFE will cover the length of a programme + a gift yesr. For programmes with an integrated FY, they are seen as a four year programme, but would still get a gift year in the event that they may need to repeat their studies (depending on their regs at the university) or do a placement/year abroad. In extreme cases, SFE may fund an additional year based on the student’s appeal. However, if a student does switch from a four year to a three year – the allocation changes so in effect, their gift year has been used.

    For some FY routes, they also cater to international students which is something to also consider too.

    There does need to be more evidence based – but arguably FY specialises in social mobility and encourages students to learn to be students. At Hull, we’re starting to see students opt for FY despite having entry tariffs to go to L4 because they want the confidence. That could be the after effects of COVID or it could serve a purpose for students building their resilience.

    1. Hi Emma – apologies, I should have been clearer that I was referring to the post-LLE system, which (as I understand it) is limited to four years.

  4. For mature learners Access to HE is usually a far better proposal as it keeps progression routes open and the student loan is scrapped when the student progresses to HE.

    All too often we see our level 3 18 year old students offered foundation years in to courses that go in to clearing and entry requirements for the 3 year programme drop below their achieved grades. It’s clearly only a money making exercise in those cases and will likely fail as the student will be bored and not academically stretched and often repeating material from level 3.

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