This is a guest blog kindly contributed by Professor Nick Braisby, Vice-Chancellor at Buckinghamshire New University
Whatever one may think of the Augar report and its varied recommendations, it appears to have focused generally on the right questions and to have appropriately considered existing research and evidence.
However, one section that seems singularly under-researched is that devoted to foundation years or, as the report puts it, ‘one-year courses offered by universities for students who do not have the prior attainment in the right subjects to enter the course of their choice’ (p. 103).
These courses have been enormously successful, if student enrolments as cited by Augar are any measure. And in a market-driven higher education sector, what better evidence could there be than that the numbers of students entering such programmes tripled between 2012/13 and 2017/18, from 10,430 to 30,030? And although numbers on Access Diplomas within the FE sector fell in the same period from 36,880 to 30,410, the combined numbers on either a Foundation year or an Access Diploma rose in this period by 13,130, an increase of 28 per cent. Surely this is a sign of Universities adapting to the wants and needs of their customer base?
However, Augar drew a different conclusion, going on to say that ‘It is hard not to conclude that universities are using foundation years to create four-year degrees in order to entice students who do not otherwise meet their standard entry criteria’ (p. 103). Thus, in spite of the prima facie case for retaining foundation years – that students want them – the report recommended student finance should no longer be offered for foundation years, other than in exceptional cases.
I think the sector should see Augar’s focus on these programmes as an opportunity to make a positive, comprehensive and coherent case for their continued funding. Such a case should, in my view, build on the obvious market success of foundation years, challenge the assumption that they are designed for students who do not meet entry criteria, and carefully lay out their value in widening participation and enhancing the social mobility of our students.
At Buckinghamshire New University, our experience of foundation years has been formed principally over the past three academic years. In that time, numbers of applications have risen dramatically: from less than 1% of our undergraduate applications in 2017/18 to 11% in 2018/19, and currently standing at 14% for 2019/20 entry. The popularity of foundation years is not simply, as implied by Augar, within Business and Administrative Studies. We find equal popularity within Human and Social Sciences, Media and Creative Industries, and Art, Design and Performance. And were it not for the challenges of professional, statutory and regulatory bodies, we believe we would see similar popularity within healthcare subjects too.
Choice and Entry Criteria
Interestingly, we find similar levels of conversion from application to acceptance in foundation year courses and non-foundation year courses, a finding that suggests foundation year students do not experience a reduced level of choice when selecting their final programme and contra to the implication within Augar. The views of our students corroborate these data. We find that 80% of our foundation year students say they actively chose a foundation year course, citing reasons such as needing ‘to adapt to the University’, often after a break from education, the need to ‘update my academic skills’, address under-confidence with academic study and improve chances of success in meeting likely study challenges further on in the course. Students report the foundation year as being ‘helpful to me’, preparing them ‘for all the types of assignments we will experience in latter years’, and the skills taught as being ‘very useful and I can see my progress as the year progressed’. Others comment on ‘the wide range of support…when I was struggling with my own mental health’.
I have spoken to our foundation year students at first hand to find out their reasons for choosing a foundation year course. LP undertook a foundation year because she did not feel prepared to go straight in to a degree. ‘I didn’t feel my skills were ready to go straight in to a degree,’ she said. LP was also keen to debunk what she sees as a myth around foundation years.
There is a big assumption that foundation years are for people who didn’t get in to university. I am an example of someone who has worked hard through secondary school, felt I needed to acquire extra skills before studying for a degree, and have chosen to do a foundation year. It’s been one of the best things I’ve done.
AC told me that:
Being a mature student returning to education can be daunting, particularly with all the things you need to know, such as researching correctly, working academically, and citing correctly. I feel like I have been given all the skills so that when it comes to next year I will be able to push on successfully with my degree thanks to the skills I have learnt on the foundation year.
EM also praised the foundation year, saying ‘if I could speak to someone about a Foundation Year I would say, go for it, it will really help you to succeed.’
In speaking to these students, I was especially struck by their long-term career aspirations, how they identified skills gaps they needed to work on, and their firm belief that the foundation year would maximise their chances of career success.
At Bucks, foundation years are also a vital tool in our strategy to widen participation and open the doors of the University to all who can benefit. We know, for example that whilst around only 40% of our (non-foundation year) full-time undergraduate intake are male, that figure rises to 56% for our foundation year. Our foundation years attract greater proportions of younger students (60% vs 49%), more BME students (62% vs 47%), more disabled students (15% vs 12%) and more students with mental health issues (5% vs 3%). We also find that they attract higher proportions of students who are local to the University, and more from low participation neighbourhoods (21% vs 7%). What options would these students have were they not able to secure financial support to pursue a foundation year at their local University?
Of course, Augar may not be implemented. We have a new Government with new priorities. But the focus on foundation years has worried every University leader I have spoken with, not because they seek to protect a narrow self-interest, but because they understand the benefit these courses bring to our students. So, should anyone in government feel that funding for foundation years ought to be reviewed, I would ask three things: a) understand why these are meeting a market need; b) listen to the students; c) understand the value of foundation years in widening participation. If you find what we at Bucks have found, you will see not courses that students take because they cannot pursue their preferred choice, but courses that are meeting students’ needs, helping to address gaps in their confidence and skills, and which help deliver career success to those who might otherwise not find their way into higher education at all.