Dr Camilla Priede
Dr David Vessey
Foundation Years are unique in the UK higher education context: they resist benchmarking and are tailored to prepare students for study within a specific institution. Some are designed to convert students between subject areas (largely within STEM), some for students who have had significant breaks from education, and others for students who simply have not achieved the institution’s level 1 entry criteria. Currently there is no national database where prospective applicants can get Information Advice and Guidance (IAG).
For an applicant, the range of foundation years can be bewildering. There is nowhere currently where applicants can go which outlines the range of programmes, what subjects they facilitate entry to, and who they are aimed at. An applicant could easily use up all of their UCAS choices on foundation years for which they are not suited or for which they do not meet the entry criteria. They are often conflated with foundation degrees, or access courses, and their unique characteristics are not understood.
For institutions employing ethical recruitment practices, it is important to ensure that anyone accepted onto a foundation year can genuinely benefit from that course and, that without completion of that foundation year, they will be unlikely to succeed on their intended degree. In a climate where accusations are being made from a number of directions about the validity of foundation years and whether they are just being used to boost recruitment during a time of demographic decline, it is important that admissions decisions are defensible and that value to students can be demonstrated. This poses a challenge for admissions, especially those that operate on a tariff basis in a shifting and competitive HE market, where there is a danger that foundation years are simply used to ‘make up numbers’ on struggling courses.
There are clearly reasons why Foundation years should collaborate in the admissions process. Those of us who provide IAG to applicants could be better placed to provide applicants with appropriate alternatives, in terms of subjects offered and intended audience.
A number of foundation years are specifically aimed at Widening Participation. In departments such as the Department for Lifelong Learning at the University of Sheffield, we have no fixed entry tarrif, although successful applicants have to meet both our entry and eligibility criteria: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/dll/courses/foundation-year-degrees/applications. This creates its own challenges in that there are no A level grades or similar to rely on, to act as proxies for potential to succeed upon a course. Instead we have developed a range of tools for quantifying the unquantifiable, via interview, numeracy and literacy tests, and conversations with support and welfare managers. Colleagues in other institutions have also developed
their own approaches to this, and there are clear benefits in collaborating to share these, and tools for evaluating their success.
In a workshop on the 21st September, we discussed some of these challenges and presented some of the results of a preliminary survey scoping colleagues’ interest and appetite for collaboration. In their replies, FYN colleagues identified a range of potential areas where a database – initially internal facing – might begin to track the varied provision of foundation years across HE institutions. Entry requirements and targets necessary for progression were highlighted, as were the role played by Widening Participation characteristics in cases where these might be mandatory or aid contextualised admissions decisions. Other practical factors were identified: the size of the cohort students could expect to study within; assessment methods; and the range of subjects offered by different institutions. It was clear from discussions at the workshop that in all of these areas there is a tremendous amount of variety and distinctiveness in how foundation years recruit and teach their students.
As things stand, there is a clear willingness and opportunity to forge collaborative working across foundation-year practitioners in admissions procedures. In the first instance, agreeing what a potential internal database might track offers the possibility of providing prospective applicants with more informed IAG, and beginning to clarify the varied bases of UK HE foundation programmes.
In addition to this, there is also an appetite for collaboration around sharing best practice in tools for ethical recruitment, and we should explore how the network can facilitate making spaces for practitioners to engage with this.