DfE releases data on foundation years

Scaffolding for a decision already made? An admission? We don't know

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

For such an important topic, there is surprisingly little data out there that enables us to understand the experiences of foundation year (FY) students.

Definitionally, these are students who enjoy an extra year of university education before the start of their undergraduate degree. Foundation years compete with level three qualifications (A levels, vocational qualifications, the access to HE qualification) to prepare students for undergraduate studies.

Through a government lens, FYs are the most expensive way for the nation to do this – funded at the same level as a year of an undergraduate degree, and with students eligible for maintenance loans too, the cost of a FY outstrips the alternatives.

The Department for Education “Higher Education Reform” consultation set out plans to reduce the amount of fees payable for FYs, from a maximum of £9,250 now to the Access to HE fee limit (currently £5,760). Based on responses, DfE will apply these limits to classroom based (OfS Band D) subjects from 2025-26 – this would include provision in business and management, currently the most popular foundation year subject.

With that decision already made (though, strictly speaking, not yet communicated to the Office for Students for implementation), the purpose of these new ad-hoc statistics is unclear. Certainly, there would be interest in comparing the outcomes of similar students (sex, entry qualification, subject, socio-economic background) across the various routes into and through higher education. That’s not what we have.

Instead, we can compare the performance of single-dimension groups between students who entered via a foundation year and those who entered directly into an undergraduate degree (this includes students who entered with another level three qualification, but will be dominated by those who entered HE with three A levels). The only institutional splits available are the proprietary Office for Students access bands.

Though more data is always welcome, especially on sparsely understood groups like this, the design of this release is a stumbling block. In essence, we badly need error bars – the group sizes of FY students are so small that we can’t really compare proportions between these two populations.

We can learn with confidence that the numbers of students on FYs has expanded (with a particular growth in the pandemic year of 2020-21). It’s also clear that business and management is the most popular subject area for FYs, and that the majority of FYs can be found in lower tariff providers (with growth particularly in the “unknown tariff” group that denotes very new providers). Finally, although it is clear that mature (21+) students are more likely to enter via an FY, (obviously) FYs attract students with low or now L3 tariff points.

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In terms of progression and continuation, we can – bearing in mind the caveat on proportions of small numbers – see that there is no significant difference between the outcomes of FY students and entrants via other routes. To be fair, you would imagine that students that struggled at level 3 for reasons other than ability (and thus would be likely FY candidates) would continue to struggle when in higher education for the same reasons – poverty, lack of social capital, other responsibilities – that they had faced previously.

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Back a few years the OfS released data with the ostensible purpose of demonstrating that unconditional offers were bad for student success – and ended up illustrating that entry via clearing was equally bad. I’d put entry via FY at a similar level of risk based on this data, which isn’t quite the slam-dunk anyone was really hoping for.

We’ve had pieces making the argument for foundation years (and the impact that discouraging them would have on some of the least well-served students) before. With this new release of data, we can see little evidence that the primary animating factor is anything other than financial.

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