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Don’t write off foundation years

  • 7 June 2019
  • By Tom Sperlinger

This guest post has been kindly written for HEPI by Tom Sperlinger, who is Professor of Literature and Engaged Pedagogy at the University of Bristol and co-author of Who are universities for?

I have never cheered out loud when reading a review of higher education funding before. But I did last week, when I came to a diagram on page 44 of the Augar Review of Post-18 Education and Funding. It shows how five different people might drop in and out of education as an adult, using a proposed lifelong learning loan allowance.

Most people’s lives are messy and complex and, increasingly, we all need to learn and re-skill throughout our lives.

Yet policy for higher and further education over the last 20 years has assumed that ‘the student’ is an 18-year old studying full-time.

Figure taken from page 44 of Augar report

The Augar review’s emphasis on lifelong learning is a welcome change. As well as the lifelong learning loan, it proposes funding for individual modules of 30 credits. If implemented, this would allow students to undertake bitesize chunks of learning and to accumulate credits across their lives. Such a change is long overdue.

Augar was welcomed by David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, for its attempts to re-balance funding back towards further education.

Yet the review came with a sting in the tail for those of us working in lifelong learning within universities. It recommends ‘that student finance is no longer offered for foundation years’, with funding instead directed to Access to HE qualifications, which are more often offered in further education colleges.

This proposal is based on a superficial reading of foundation years. Augar expresses surprise at the increase in the number of foundation year students between 2012/13 and 2017/18, from 10,430 to 30,030, whereas the number of entrants to Access courses declined from 36,880 to 30,410 over the same period.

Augar concludes that ‘most recruiters’ to foundation years ‘are medium of lower entry tariff institutions’ and that they are used as a recruitment mechanism rather than to widen participation. As the Foundation Year Network noted, these assumptions arise from a recent report by the Office for Students comparing Access and foundation year qualifications, but they miss the huge diversity in practice there is across the sector.

At the University of Bristol, we have offered a foundation year in Arts and Humanities since 2013 and are expanding it into Social Sciences and Law this year. Nine out of ten of our students have no A-Levels at all. They range in age from 18 to over 70 and have often faced multiple forms of disadvantage.

Nor is Bristol alone (or a pioneer) in such an offer. There are similar programmes at high-tariff institutions such as Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield and Durham as well as traditional adult educational providers such as Birkbeck and many post-1992 institutions. There are also other forms of provision, which Augar ignores. The Open University offers a shorter ‘Access’ programme of 30 credits, which is free for the majority of learners.

I support wholeheartedly Augar’s desire to shore up Access to HE provision. My career has been shaped by teaching on an Access course in Liverpool in 2002/3. Access courses are one of the most radical interventions in widening participation in recent decades and they offer a more favourable funding package. Students can access an Advanced Learner Loan to meet tuition costs, and on successful completion of a subsequent HE course, are eligible to have their outstanding loan balance written off.

But there are advantages to the foundation year model too. A year of this kind allows students to adapt to the institutional culture and curricula at a particular university. Mature students often feel that they ‘lack’ something compared to those who have followed a conventional route, but these years give them confidence and resilience on their subsequent degree. The Office for Students report, on which Augar relies, notes a higher progression and retention rates for foundation years compared to Access qualifications.

These programmes can also effect significant culture change within universities, bringing a variety of perspectives into the classroom and better preparing academics to meet a diverse range of students. It’s also worth noting that many universities (including Bristol) offer a lower fee, to mitigate the additional debt that students are taking on.

The law of unintended consequences usually applies when it comes to funding for lifelong learning programmes. When funding was withdrawn for students pursuing an equivalent or lower-level qualification (ELQs) than one they already held, in 2007, it was designed to increase the range of students pursuing a first degree. Instead, it decimated lifelong learning departments in universities.

Similarly, the 2012 funding changes brought part-time students into the fees and loans system for the first time, which was intended to produce greater equality between different modes of study. But the changes were disastrous. There are 60 per cent fewer part-time students in universities than there were in 2010.

I fear the recommendations on foundation years in Augar are a similar case. There is a risk that foundation year provision could be decimated, with no guarantee of more Access qualifications to compensate – and thus fewer places for adult learners overall. This could have uneven results across the country – with serious consequences, as these students are much less likely to be geographically mobile. There is also a risk of reinforcing the perception that universities are for young people and that adult education should be left solely to further education providers, which would undermine work in both sectors to widen access.

2019 is the one hundredth anniversary of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s Final Report on Adult Education, which initiated a ‘golden era’ in which adult education thrived across sectors. Universities played a significant role as ‘responsible bodies’ providing adult education in their region. There is widespread recognition today (including in Augar) that universities need to re-think their civic role. The UPP commission on this issue specifically encouraged more adult education courses.

If Augar’s aspirations in lifelong learning are to be implemented, then a holistic review of Access and foundation year provision is needed: to map ‘cold’ spots, ensure viable funding for both routes and set some expectations for which students are recruited to foundation years.

Augar is right to call for everyone to have the opportunity to be educated post-18. Access to HE courses and foundation years are both vital pieces of the jigsaw for achieving this aim. If the spirit of Augar lives on in future policy, we shouldn’t be choosing between them.

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