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HEPI Report finds that neither universities nor the Government have got to grips with an ‘explosion’ in foundation year courses

  • 7 March 2024
  • By Josh Freeman

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) today publishes an important new report, Cracks in our foundations: Evaluating foundation years as a tool for access and success (HEPI Report 170), by HEPI Policy Manager Josh Freeman.

Foundation years are an additional year of study at the beginning of a higher education course designed to prepare students for degree-level study. Proponents say they can boost access, by giving students an extra year of study to catch up with their peers. Critics, including in the Department for Education (DfE), argue many are low-quality and not necessary for students. In July 2023, the DfE cut the maximum fees for some courses from £9,250 to £5,760.

This report argues there is significant room for improvement, both in the way higher education institutions use foundation years and in how Government has responded to them.

Key findings:

  • There has been an explosive eightfold increase in foundation year enrolment. While only 8,500 took foundation years in 2011/12, over 69,000 students did so in 2021/22.
  • Business and Management dominate foundation year studies, accounting for over half (51%) of enrolments. By contrast, only 13% of undergraduates study Business courses.
  • Foundation years excel in providing access to higher education. Nearly 30% of students possess no prior qualifications and 64% are mature students.
  • However, a large majority (73%) of foundation year students study at low-tariff institutions, and just 4% study at high-tariff institutions.
  • Only 74% of foundation year students proceed directly to degree-level study or qualify. By comparison, 91% of full-time undergraduates do so.
  • Some institutions may be using foundation years to inflate their tariff scores artificially. However, the report finds no evidence of institutions pressuring students to take foundation years.
  • Government policy to address the problem is likely to be ineffective and may cause more problems than it resolves. The crackdown explicitly targeted Business courses, but these are the only classroom-based foundation years which could still be economically viable, while courses in Science, Technology and Engineering may often be loss-making.

We recommend that:

  • The cut in the maximum fee for classroom-based courses should not be introduced and all courses should be able to charge the same maximum fee.
  • Student finance should be withdrawn from foundation year courses which do not deliver excellent outcomes for students.
  • High-tariff institutions should consider the possibilities for foundation year courses to increase access.

We also investigate so-called ‘international foundation years’. These were heavily criticised by the Sunday Times for allegedly admitting students with lower grades than home students. We find that:

  • In 2020/21, no more than 14% of students on integrated foundation years were international students.
  • A clear majority of international students (60%) study in London and the East of England. 44% of them studied Business.
  • At 71%, the proportion continuing in higher education or qualifying was even lower than for home students.
  • But these findings only relate to ‘integrated’ international foundation years; we have little data on foundation year courses which are not integrated with a full degree.

Josh Freeman, Policy Manager at HEPI and author of the report, said:

In the blink of an eye, and without proper scrutiny, foundation year courses have become extraordinarily popular. Many of these courses are excellent, giving opportunities to students with incredible potential but need more support to succeed in higher education. But many others are not doing justice to students, who, despite giving significant money, time and energy, are not getting the degree they were promised.

The Government also bears some responsibility. Its policy of slashing fees for Business and Humanities courses is simplistic and might make quality worse. Other courses, including STEM courses, are at serious risk of being financially unviable because universities are limited in what they can charge.

It’s time for everyone to wake up. Universities shouldn’t be running these courses unless they can be confident they can properly support every single student. And the Office for Students should make a serious attempt to distinguish excellent foundation year courses from those which fail to meet quality standards.

Note for Editors

HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.

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  1. Andrew Kingston says:

    I support investigations into poor quality at HEIs. Still, the criticism of lower tariff institutions (made explicit by the word ‘however’ in the fourth key findings bullet) leaves a nasty taste in the mouth – the message here, surely being that ‘lower tariff’ HEIs, and the experience they offer are inferior.

    I work at a lower tariff institution. We are NOT inferior to higher tariff institutions. My experience as a student at North London, years ago, was right for me and gave me so much more than I’d have taken from a ‘higher tariff’ institution. Not that these damaging labels existed at the time…

    I was a mature student with little academic confidence but a love for my subject, who would certainly have taken a foundation year in uni had they existed, and who just wasn’t right or ready to be flung into the more rarified atmosphere and set up at the more “prestigious” unis.

    Should higher tariff HEIs take on foundation years? Would they want to? Are they set up to support a sudden influx of more mature students with fewer recognised qualifications and who are more likely to have responsibilities which will impact on their studies?

    In my opinion, foundation years were, and should still be mainly run in FE. I feel that many WP, local or teaching HEIs, once saddled with the stigma of being called “lower” tariff, and once faced with fees capping and number caps removal, started offering foundations as a way to generate income and survive. Not a great idealistic response, but doubtless saved some institutions.

  2. That’s a lot to take from the single word ‘however’!

    The point certainly wasn’t that low-tariff institutions are inferior. It was to note that however good foundation years are at bringing students from a wider variety of backgrounds into higher education, they can only be imperfect tools for access (or at least not comprehensive ones) if they only bring students into some kinds of institutions and not others.

    The other issues you raise though are excellent points and exactly the kind of discussion I hoped this paper would inspire. Is it right for medium- and high-tariff institutions to offer many foundation years, as they might be ‘poaching’ from other institutions with lower grade requirements and at the expense of taking fewer students who did meet the original grade requirements?

    So I don’t think this is a difference of values, and rather a question of securing the best outcomes for students – as you rightly suggest in discussing your own experience.

  3. What role should the Government play in regulating and supporting the development of foundation year courses to ensure positive outcomes for students?
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