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The case for putting foundation years on more stable ground

  • 20 May 2021
  • By Chris Husbands

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor, Sheffield Hallam University. Chris also co-authored HEPI Paper 125 ‘Making Universities Matter: How higher education can help to heal a divided Britain’. You can find Chris on Twitter @Hallam_VC.

There are ominous storm clouds gathering on the horizon for universities. As the Government finally prepares its much-anticipated full response to the Augar review, rumours abound that options on the table could include student number controls, fee reform, minimum entry requirements and the removal of funding for foundation years in a bid to minimise the cost of higher education on the public accounts.

All of these potential clouds bring sleepless nights for university leaders. All require cautious reflection and interrogation to avoid a catastrophic undermining of the higher education sector and the people and places we aim to support.

In an attempt to tackle one of these looming clouds, Sheffield Hallam and colleagues at nine other similar higher education institutions across England, via a new Policy Perspectives Network*, took a closer look at the role of foundation years, drawing on our institutional experience and the perspectives of students and stakeholders.

Our view is that the removal of funding for foundation year provision would be extremely short-sighted, while prolonged uncertainty undermines this offer.

The future of foundation years has been in question since 2019 when the Augar review recommended the withdrawal of funding, with a government consultation on this provision expected later this year. Our view is that the removal of funding for foundation year provision would be extremely short-sighted, while prolonged uncertainty undermines this offer.

Foundation years have been one of the success stories of recent times, with numbers quadrupling over the last five years and more than 55,000 students choosing to study on foundation year courses in 2019/20.

Foundation years serve a unique purpose in the system. They:

  • provide a route to success for students who would otherwise not access opportunities;
  • disproportionately meet the needs of students from more disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds;
  • represent quality and value for students, taxpayers and employers;
  • ensure a greater likelihood of progression and complements other access routes including through FE; and
  • help provide the skills needed to deliver sustainable recovery and regional prosperity in a post-COVID economy.

In our collective experience, foundation year courses at university offer a vital second chance to ‘under-attaining’ young adults to retrain and upskill or mature students who want to re-engage with education. They help students who have not met the required entry requirements, or students who have not studied the right subjects to enter their degree of choice. 

Foundation year courses provide an important platform for reaching disadvantaged students, building skills and responding to local skills shortages. They enable access to cutting-edge facilities and diverse knowledge-based communities and help to overcome the challenges that many find in transitioning to a higher education environment. According to analysis from the Office for Students, a higher proportion of students progress to a degree after taking a foundation year (79%) than following an Access Course (62%).

Importantly, foundation years open up pathways for students who are too often overlooked. In 2017/18, 32 per cent of students on foundation years in universities came from the most disadvantaged background (Quintile 1 of the Indices of Multiple Deprivation), up from 25 per cent in 2011/12. Across our ten institutions, students on foundation years were more likely to be male and from an under-represented background; more likely to be from a BAME background; more likely to be from a disadvantaged or under-represented background; and more likely to have a disability.  

At my university, Sheffield Hallam, we support more students from underrepresented backgrounds into higher education than any other university and yet our students on foundation year courses are even more likely that their Hallam peers to be disadvantaged, to be from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds or to be males from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. In 2019/20, 30% of our foundation years students were from BAME backgrounds compared to 17% of other undergraduates.

When so much emphasis – and rightly so – is put on widening access and encouraging a more diverse set of students to attend university, it would be nonsensical to remove support for a route which opens up new pathways and provides bridging provision. The impact of COVID-19 only reaffirms the importance of foundation year provision, given the devastating impact of the pandemic on educational and economic opportunity.

For young people, a year of disrupted and remote provision has denied them the full campus experience and resulted in mental health challenges for some students

For young people, a year of disrupted and remote provision has denied them the full campus experience and resulted in mental health challenges for some students. For these students, foundation years offer an essential stepping-stone and an opportunity to build skills and confidence, while for mature students, they can help with the reskilling and retraining now necessary due to economic restructuring and retrenchment.

And as we look towards the much needed economic recovery post-COVID, foundation years play an important role in diversifying the entry routes into STEM and addressing skills shortages. Recent analysis showed that Business, followed by Engineering and Technology and Biological Sciences were the top areas of entrants for foundation year courses in 2017/18.   

Current policy uncertainty undermines the capacity of universities to invest and innovate in its foundation year provision. If policymakers want to see a more diverse student population, to widen participation, especially to STEM subjects and to offer a second chance to students who may have been let down or left behind, foundation year courses must be considered a key route to delivering these outcomes.

Whatever the future clouds might bring, it would be short-sighted and counterproductive if foundation years get battered by the pending storm.

You can read the full briefing here.

*The Policy Perspectives Network brings together ten universities from across England to share insights and intelligence on policy developments across the sector. This informal grouping aims to complement existing sector bodies and mission groups. Members are Aston, Essex, Kent, Lincoln, Manchester Metropolitan, Middlesex, Northampton, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Sheffield Hallam.

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