David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Last month we were deluged with information about sub-degree courses. Office for Students, HESA and the QAA (via their Access to HE offshoot) all published information about the uptake and demographic of such courses at similar but non-identical times.

Fast-forward three weeks and the Augar report devotes an entire page to the issue (page 103) and recommends that one of the key sub-degree access options is abolished apart from in strictly controlled circumstances. What has happened?

Whether or not there is any evidence that providers are seeing the foundation year as a cash cow, or that it offers a poor deal for students, we are not getting to see it. The data that does exist does not support the Augar conclusions, even when it is directly cited as doing so.

Sub-degree access in a nutshell

For the most part access to Level 4 (undergraduate degree) study requires qualifications at Level 3. For the overwhelming majority, this unfortunately means A levels or equivalent. But – in belated recognition of how closely A level performance is linked to disadvantage – there are other options available. In alphabetical order:

Access to HE Diploma

According to the QAA – which licences Access Validating Agencies (AVAs) – an Access to HE Diploma is “designed, in particular, for people who have been out of education for some time, especially those who left school with too few qualifications to be able to go straight to university. Access to HE courses provide a good foundation in the knowledge and skills required for studying at university level, so that students are confident and well prepared when they go on to higher education.”

An Access to HE Diploma (AHED) is a nationally recognised qualification at level 3 – most often delivered by FE colleges (though 14 UK HE providers offer the qualification). As a non-HE qualification below level 4 it does not attract eligibility for fee or maintenance loans like HE courses do. Instead, learners may be eligible for an Advanced Learner Loan, which will cover tuition fees and is written off once a learner completes a HE course.

As an AHED is a nationally recognised qualification, it is accepted by most universities in the UK. Most will have grade requirements – 45 level 3 credits at “distinction” level is equivalent to three A levels at grade A on the UCAS Tariff. Most will also look for an AHED in a subject broadly related to the chosen degree – AHEDs come in broad subject flavours (humanities, sciences…) or vocational specialisms (nursing, midwifery…). Healthcare related AHEDs dominate provision.

Because AHEDs generally sit outside of the HE system, tuition fees are lower (and if you are a young person without any level 2 or 3 qualifications it may be free). The general price is variable – I’ve seen courses from around £2,500 to around £6,000. However, this is more expensive than simply taking three A levels at your local college.

Foundation year

According to Student Finance England:

“Foundation year students are eligible for student support if the foundation year is an integral part of the course, and the course as a whole is designated by, or under, the Education (Student Support) Regulations 2011 (as amended), and when first enrolling, students enrol for the full length of the extended course.”

So you usually see foundation years (FYs) advertised UCAS alongside a named course (for example “Forensic Science BSc(Hons) with Foundation Year”). The extra year, sometimes called “year 0” is to prepare a student for study at degree level – but it is available only for study on a named degree at a single institution. It does not lead to a specific award in itself, and is generally not transferable between institutions

It is generally expected that you pass your FY to proceed to year 1 – the precise requirement will be set out in the regulations of the course. Although the FY should be an “integral part” of the full course, it is probable that generic skills (for example study skills) will be covered alongside course-specific content.

Eligibility for fee loans means that the prices of a foundation year similar to a year of undergraduate study – up to £9250. This is added to your total undergraduate fee loan balance – on graduation you will have borrowed £37,000 plus interest.

David Willetts has long been an advocate for Foundation Years, noting in 2010 that “expanding the model of a foundation year for young people with high potential but lower qualifications” would be instrumental in improving life chances.

Who takes these courses?

Research by HESA suggests that the years since Willetts’ endorsement has seen a significant growth in student numbers at year 0. In 2010-11 a just under 9,000 students in England took a foundation year – by 2017-18 this had risen to more than 25,000.

The number of disadvantaged (based on index of multiple deprivation, IMD) mature students taking an FY has grown by around 40% each year since 2014-15 – but in terms of raw numbers students of all ages from non-disadvantaged groups continue to dominate.

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Data from the QAA tells a similar if expansionary tale on AHED – numbers entering a first degree course with this qualification have risen from 8,335 in 2007/08 to 22,102 in 2017/18. Unlike the FY, the AHED population is overwhelmingly mature – 83% of those entering a first degree in 2017-18 were over 21.

In terms of participation, the QAA report sticks with POLAR4 – 22% of entrants to a first degree holding an AHED are from a low participation neighbourhood, compared with 10% of all first degree entrants.

There is variability in the way students progress – again from the QAA report – mature students are more likely to drop out of HE following a foundation course (11.9%) than an AHED (9.7%), but this trend is reversed for young students (Foundation – 6.8%, AHED – 10.7%), though low numbers of under 21s with AHED mean the figures are less reliable.

(Apologies for the lack of diagrams here – this is one of those mercifully rare data reports released as a PDF. Something I will call out whenever I see it.)

Similarities and differences

In developing their recommendations on FYs, the Augar panel drew primarily on research conducted by the Office for Students. This report begins by detailing the numbers of students taking each kind of course – this information wasn’t clear in the QAA data report, but OfS are happy to contrast the near tripling of FY students with a decline (of 36,880 to 30,410 across three years, about 18%) of students taking an AHED. This introduction is repeated verbatim in the Augar report, which then comparisons of the relative cost of the two course types.

Augar also makes great play of the curious idea that lower tariff providers are more likely to bring students in via foundation year courses. I say “curious” because while this is (numerically) true, it is more true for AHEDs. The OfS report identifies that both AHED and FY entrants tend to enter to lower or medium tariff providers, those with FYs are slightly more likely than AHED holders to attend high tariff providers (16% to 18%).

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What’s odd here is that, if you take the post-Govian idea that widening access is all about getting non-traditional students into high-tariff providers, foundation years would appear to be doing a better job. Mature students (the predominant constituency for AHEDs) do tend towards lower tariff providers, which could be a part of what we are seeing here.

But if we are bringing externalities into the equation, is it not perhaps worth noting the general decline in mature entry to HE, linked in no small way to the decline in part-time recruitment. And – frankly, the decline in nursing recruitment (with is very often mature students) will also be seen in the decline of AHED recruitment, as healthcare related subjects are the modal AHED offer.

Bear in mind also that mature students are increasingly choosing to take FYs over AHEDs. There’s only anecdotes as to why – but it surely cannot just be the power of marketing.

The panel does not quote from the conclusion of the OfS report, which is short and worth quoting in full:

This report has shown that while there are similarities between Access to Higher Education Diplomas and integrated foundation year courses, there are also important differences. In particular, the wider geographical spread of Access courses means they may be suitable for a wider range of potential higher education students and enable progression to many different courses, whereas foundation years may be more likely to attract students with a higher level of commitment to taking degree-level study at a specific provider.

However, there is also evidence that a significant proportion of those who take an Access course will not progress to degree-level study in the years afterwards, and that a smaller proportion will complete the degree course than those who started with a foundation year.

FYs and AHEDs are, indeed, two different qualifications that do two very different things within the general space of access to higher education. Much of the response to Augar has been characterised by pleas not to hurt HE to help FE. On this matter, I would urge Ministers not to hurt young students with clear career plans but without the matching A level grades in an attempt to help mature learners.

It is the panel’s view that “the inequity in funding and support available for AHEDs compared to the package available for FYs is resulting in poor value for money for both government and some students.“ It is true that the student support offer for AHEDs is not as good as it should be – indeed, the panel recommendations on support for L3 qualifications more generally will address this issue. The costings state that removing FY support will save £0.2bn each year – at £7,500 (Augar rates) this would be 27,000 students, substantially more than the current FY population. It’s not clear how this figure has been arrived at.

The Foundation Year Network have asked for better data, and more nuanced analysis on FYs. I would join them in this call. They made a similar request when the Welsh government consulted on the same idea in 2016 – the view from Cardiff was that “there is insufficient evidence to make a change to student support at this time”.

3 responses to “Why abolish the foundation year?

  1. Great article. Indeed, why can’t there be a place for both in the current HE landscape? There’s certainly an argument for reducing the cost for the foundation year (staff don’t need to have PhDs, courses already share modules and resources), but there’s surely no better prep for a bachelor’s degree in a specific subject than a foundation year.

  2. To abolish FYs would be removing the best chance for capable people who, through no fault of their own, have not so far had the chance to fulfil their potential.

    Throughout the 1990s I was a college lecturer who ran a series of FYs which we franchised from a local university. They were popular courses and also successful. During the time that I was involved with these courses the majority of our FY students went on to achieve Honour Degrees, Masters Degrees and even one or two PhDs.

    AHEDs tend to leave students with insufficient knowledge in some areas of the courses they are wanting to progress onto if they are wanting to follow a degree program in Engineering, Computing or Science.

    The FYs have extra units when compared to AHEDs that are specifically targeting necessary areas of knowledge that will be required for their chosen degree.

    To abolish FYs would, in my opinion, be a travesty, Something that has been proven to work over decades in the widening of participation in HE and gives people a chance to work at the higher levels of which they are capable instead of being left in lower level jobs in which circumstances have placed them.

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